I do like a good biographical film, they often portray important and fascinating figures, set in exotic locations around the world, giving snap shots of the turning points in civilization. Showing what has been gained and often lost in the process. Kundun is one such film. Released in 1998, it tells the tale of the Dalai Lama, starting from his childhood as a peasant boy, up to his exile in India. I actually saw this on its release, (which made me one of the lucky few) at a cinema in Keswick while on a camping trip. It marked a point in my life when I was leaving home, and horizons were beginning to open up for me. Although I would like to imagine that I was some sort of cinephile, my knowledge was strictly limited to British and American films, so despite being a Hollywood production, Kundun was a marked shift for me comprising a wholly foreign cast and set in an alien time and place. While I had loved many films before, this was the first time I exited a screening dumbfounded at what I had seen, I don’t think I had the words or experience to describe it, only a wide eyed look of amazement such was the impact it had on me, cinema in its purest form, it is the most visually beautiful film I have ever seen.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, it is a far cry from his usual fare of blood and guts and criminal lowlife, as depicted in Mean Streets or Casino, although as with most of his films it deals with the spiritual journey of its main character. Instead, here Scorsese presents a hypnotic, dreamy account which treats its subject with the reverence of an unobtrusive observer, peeping into the forbidden world of others. Beginning in 1937, we find a young precocious boy living the simple life with his peasant family on the Tibetan plateau, arid plains are boarded by the giant mountains of the Himalayas, the dry winds blow through and with them come a party of Buddhist monks disguised as commoners, on a quest to find the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Crows sore through the endless skies looking on knowingly. The boy is subject to tests and ancient rites to prove his suitability, and once passed he is taken from his home and off over the plains to the capital Lhasa to be formally trained as head of state and church. Prophesies are told pertaining to the future, and the boy grows into the role he is set to play, learning of both the politics of the court and the wider world outside. All this is shown in whirlwind of colour, music and mysticism embedded in centuries old tradition. But the world turns and turns again, and as soon as peace seems to come to the boy spiritually, so turmoil follows in its wake, first through the death of friends and relatives and then with the invasion by China.
It is here that the tone of the film shifts from one of a multicoloured dreamscape, to the harsh monotone of communist brutality both figuratively and literally, as our protagonist leaves Tibet for the first time to visit Peking to hold talks with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, exuding all the traits of a sociopathic mass murderer, crisply ironed suits and shiny shoes masking a murderous intent, the scene where the two leaders discuss the future of Tibet contrasts the naive peaceful motives of one with the ruthlessness of the other, at one point Mao ceases paying lip service to his guest, cutting him off mid-sentence to decry, “religion is poison”, leaving the Dalia Lama in no doubt to the futility of the negotiations. The story then returns to Tibet and the tragic denouement of the tale; threats, attempted kidnappings, bombings, massaces and escapes.
Great credit should be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins for the look of the film. His use of landscapes, colour, and movement are astounding, the camera work picks you up like a magic carpet and whisks you off into a dream, disorientating the viewer in a blizzard of amazing set pieces; from the pilgrimage to Lhasa, to court scenes draped in fabric, and visions of Koi Carp and sand mosaics, the richness of imagery is marvellous. This is all accompanied by an otherworldly soundtrack by Philip Glass, full of thunderous trumpets and a cacophony of instruments.
It is truly a work of wonder that I encourage all to watch, if only as a poke in the eye to the communists in China, and the appeasers at Disney, who conspired to bury the film on release with only 2 theatres showing it in the US and streaming sites refusing to host it. You can I believe get it on DVD and Blue Ray though. As the film ends, so does this review, with the words of the Dalai Lama, “I am a reflection, like the moon on the water”, perhaps we all should ask ourselves what reflection do we want to see of ourselves? Enjoy.
© Authur 2023