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<-Back to WTN Archives FILM REVIEW -- Scorsese Creates Feast For Senses in `Kundun'
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World Tibet Network News

Thursday, January 29, 1998

1. FILM REVIEW -- Scorsese Creates Feast For Senses in `Kundun'

Film explores Dalai Lama's spirituality amid violent unrest

San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, January 16, 1998
Peter Stack, Chronicle Staff Critic

KUNDUN: Historical drama. Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Tencho Gyalpo,
Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Gyatso Lukhang. Directed by Martin Scorsese. (PG-13.
135 minutes. At the Regency.)

Stunning, odd, glorious, calm and sensationally absorbing, director Martin
Scorsese's "Kundun" is a remarkable piece of work with vital colors and a
wrenching message.

That said, it may not be for everybody. The film's subject

--the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan struggle -- runs counter to the increasing
ly narrow focus of the American moviegoing public, which puts ``Kundun" at
risk of being categorized as a novelty.

The movie, which opens today, is the visually detailed biographical story of
the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual and political leader of Tibet, from his early
childhood to his forced exile in 1959 at age 24.


With a nearly all-Tibetan cast, the film stars an appealing, assured young
actor named Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, who lives in India, as the adult Dalai
Lama. Tencho Gyalpo, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, plays
his mother, and Tibetan American scholar Tsewang Migyur Khangsar was cast
as the father.

The story, crafted by screenwriter Melissa Mathison (wife of actor Harrison
Ford), introduces the Dalai Lama as a toddler and follows his "discovery" by
elders as a reincarnation of the Buddha through to his training by monks and
enthronement as Tibet's leader.

It reveals a warmly human figure sometimes balking at his situation,
wrestling with ideas and beliefs, occasionally gazing longingly at the world
of regular folk. The Dalai Lama, in Tsarong's careful reading of the
character, can be a bit remote, or standoffish, or even annoyingly stubborn.

"Kundun" seems like a curious subject for an American director best known for
movies exploring man's violent urges in a brash American landscape. But the
odd turn by Scorsese is part of the complex fascination of ``Kundun."

In telling the story of the Dalai Lama, or Kundun, Scorsese portrays a man of
peace bound in a tight brotherhood of monks, whose life is devoted to the
Buddhist ideal of compassion. Yet he stands at the center of one of the most
violent assaults on a culture in contemporary times: China's claim and
control over Tibet.

The young Mao Zedong is played by Robert Lin as ruthlessly matter-of-fact.
Mao's observation that "religion is poison" leaves the Dalai Lama speechless.


"Kundun" is as near a nonverbal movie experience as we're likely to find at
theaters. It captures the essentials of an ancient culture and builds to
China's brutal invasion, both real and spiritual. But the film is so far from
the slam-bang Hollywood approach that it sometimes feels more like a
cinematic tone poem than a narrative motion picture.

The cinematography, filled with unexpected movement and odd angles, dazzling
costumes, realistic settings and an exceptional score by composer Philip
Glass, who used traditional Tibetan vocal and instrumental forms, add up to
an extravagant feast of sensations.

Some are so odd to outsiders -- the throaty drone of monks chanting, the
hissing trances of an oracle -- that they're almost startling.

All the more remarkable is that the film was created entirely outside of
Tibet -- in Morocco. A tangle of mountains, stone monasteries, tall palaces,
the entire look and atmosphere of Lhasa, Tibet's capital, were expertly
fashioned, complete with weathered texture.

"Kundun" comes amazingly close to catching the thing movies almost never get
-- the sensation of man's spiritual life. There is a riot of imagery in this
film, and an overwhelming tragedy of violence visited on a seemingly innocent
culture. Yet the depiction of Buddhists, including the ornate ritual of their
religious-political cultural life, is one of measured calm. "Kundun" is a
film with a surprisingly rich inner life and great moments of stone silence
and stillness. Can audiences handle it?

Articles in this Issue:
  1. FILM REVIEW -- Scorsese Creates Feast For Senses in `Kundun'
  2. Roger Ebert Reviews Kundun for Chicago Sun-Times
  3. ROC to Enhance Services to Tibetans and Mongolians

Other articles this month - WTN Index - Mail the WTN-Editors

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