[Screen It]


(1997) (Tenzin Thuthob, Gyatso Lukhang) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
*Minor Moderate *Moderate *Minor Minor
None Minor Minor None None
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
None Minor Mild Mild *Moderate

Drama: A historical look at the life of the fourteenth Dalai Lama and the changes he and his fellow Tibetans experienced at the hands of the communist Chinese.
In 1933 the thirteenth Dalai Lama died and for the next several years a group of wise men in the guise of servants searched for the next holy leader of the Tibetan people. In 1937, they find a young boy (TENZIN YESHI PAICHANG) who fits the description and seemingly is the Dalai Lama reincarnated. Soon he and his family move to the holy city of Lhasa where the masters teach him the ways of being Tibet's spiritual leader. For years, the teenage Kundun (TENZIN THUTHOB TSARONG), as he's informally called, has had an uneasy peace with the Chinese and this soon dissolves after the end of WWII. Chairman Mao Tse-tung (ROBERT LIN) and his communist Chinese army soon invade and Kundun and his top aide, Lord Chamberlain (GYATSO LUKHANG), must decide what is best for him, his people, and the future of Tibet.
Not unless they're particularly interested in China, Tibet or the Dalai Lama.
For violent images.
Other than a bratty two-year-old and Chairman Mao (representing the communist invaders), the rest of the characters are decent role models as they follow a principle of nonviolence.


OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In this, the second film of the year to feature the Dalai Lama, the focus here is on the spiritual leader himself, whereas the earlier film, "Seven Years in Tibet," focused on an Austrian mountain climber who befriended the young leader. Supposedly based on the Dalai Lama's own writings and words, this film forgoes any mention of Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt's character in that other movie), and instead presents what appears to be a rather straightforward, chronologically historical story.

In doing so, the unfolding events that span the years from Kundun's "terrible-two's" to his young adulthood come across as interesting, but rather flat drama. Of course once the communist Chinese slowly infiltrate and finally invade Tibet, the movie becomes more interesting simply because it has introduced some conflict. Without conflict there is no drama, and without drama you simply have a documentary style film. One really can't fault screenwriter Melissa Mathison ("E.T.," "The Indian in the Cupboard") too much for this. If she was trying to be historical, she obviously wouldn't want to add fictitious characters or plot points, and thus was left with a lackluster, but "accurate" story.

To get around this, director Martin Scorsese pulls out all of his tricks to make sure the picture is fascinating to watch. Visually the film is a masterpiece, and that alone should hold some of the audience's interest during the slower moments. From the early stark, desert-like settings to the majestic mountains and regal trappings inside Lhasa, the film is amazing to behold. A nightmare sequence where the Dalai Lama stands amidst hundreds of slain monks is not only disturbing, but is also a stunning piece of camera work as Scorsese reveals more and more bodies as the camera continues to pull away from the scene.

The movie is also the antithesis of what most would stereotypically expect of a Scorsese picture. When people think of this talented director, the images of tough, profanity spewing characters who use violence as a means to an end come to mind. Films like "Goodfellas," "Taxi Driver," and the recent "Casino" are the "typical" works he delivers. Yet people forget that he also directed 1993's "The Age of Innocence," and 1988's controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ," two polar opposites of those tough films and something much more in tune with this production.

Yet, where those films had decent plots, the most complicated this film ever gets is having Kundun decide whether he should stay or go once the Chinese have invaded. The interesting part of that is that we're told early on that Dalai Lama means "ocean of wisdom," but the spiritual leader takes a long time to use that wisdom to make a choice. Certainly that makes him more human, but that's one of the rare times he's that way. For the rest of the film (from a teen through young adulthood), Kundun is a rather serious man and that translates onto the big screen as boring. Being monks, the rest of the cast also comes across that way and many audience members will find this film as appealing as watching the paint dry on the side of a monastery.

There are a few fun moments, however, such as when Kundun's father slaps his young son's hand for pulling on his mustache. The toddler first looks surprised and hurt, and then suddenly shows a devilishly indignant look of "how dare you slap the hand of Tibet's spiritual leader?" Unfortunately those moments are rare and make you long for something -- anything -- to happen. No, Brad Pitt never shows up, although including Herrer's presence may have injected this film with some much needed dramatic energy. The four actors who represent the different ages of Kundun over the years all do a decent job, but after the bratty (and dramatically welcomed) behavior of the two-year-old, the rest of the performances are decent but nearly emotionally flat.

Thus Scorsese must rely on his heavy symbolic visuals that become hypnotic after a while (or perhaps that was boredom slowly setting in). He certainly gets his money's worth from New Age composer Philip Glass, whose haunting, nearly nonstop score adds drama where there inherently is none, particulary in the film's first half. His best cinematic composition since 1983's brilliant time-lapse masterpiece, "Koyaanisqatsi," Glass' score beautifully compliments Scorsese's direction and Roger Deakins' wonderful cinematography. The film also uses an interesting mix of his score with the more traditional sound from the long horn instruments and their deep, haunting notes. Both are quite effective and greatly appreciated in helping keep the movie interesting.

For a film that focuses on the upheaval created by the communist Chine takeover of Tibet, the "intruders" are given the most sympathetic treatment I've probably ever seen (except for films made in China). While they eventually get around to some atrocities (implied or only seen in nightmares), they don't come off as the villains that one would expect in a film like this. Of course if this is truly based on the Dalai Lama's works, one shouldn't be too surprised -- he'd obviously cast a somewhat benevolent eye toward them, no matter their past indiscretions.

Unfortunately, the movie takes that same approach and thus forfeits what should have generated some conflict-based drama. As it stands, the film is often stunning to watch and features an impressive score, but is rather boring in telling its story. Some people may find it fascinating to watch (particularly if they have an interest in the subject matter), but others might find it too tedious to sit through without a nap. We fall into the middle and thus give "Kundun" a 5 out of 10.

Beyond a few visually bloody moments (most of which are only daydreams or nightmares), there's very little to object to in this film. There's a brief, standard issue line where chairman Mao (a communist) states that all religion is bad ("poison" in his words), and the overall fact that the Chinese invade Tibet and essentially wrest control from Kundun and the others makes up the bad attitude category. It is rather doubtful that many kids will want to see this film, and if they do, they'll probably be bored out of their minds. If you're interested in seeing it, you may want to take a quick look through the scene listings to make sure it's okay for you.

  • A man takes a pinch of an unseen substance (that may or may not be a drug) from a small container and snorts it up one nostril.
  • In a Tibetan funeral ceremony, men sharpen knives and we partially see them cutting off the corpse's arm (we don't see the actual cutting, but do see a slightly bloody stump as they take the arm away). Moments later, we see parts of body organs as well as pieces of meat from the body that they then feed to waiting vultures.
  • We briefly see a piece of paper with a black and white photo printed on it that shows three severed heads on the ground.
  • We see a very brief splatter of blood as Kundun is told about children being forced to kill their parents.
  • We see a symbolic shot (ie. It's not real) of a large amount of blood spilling into a fish pond.
  • Kundun has a dream where he is surrounded by hundreds of dead and rather bloody monks lying on the ground around him.
  • Kundun has a daydream of seeing several dead people on horseback who are bloody with some blood also on a white horse.
  • The Chinese as a whole are seen as having both as they slowly invade and take over Tibet.
  • Some viewers may not like Chairman Mao (speaking as a communist) saying that "religion is poison" that "retards the minds of people and society" and that "your people have been poisoned and are inferior."
  • Some viewers may find scenes listed under "Violence" as upsetting or tense, but there aren't any traditionally scary or tense scenes.
  • Rifles: Carried by soldiers.
  • Guns: We hear some gunshots, but don't see any guns being fired.
  • Machine guns: Briefly fired from a plane toward people on the ground.
  • None.
  • A sudden explosion of a wall may startle some viewers.
  • The traditional Tibet long horn music has an ominous quality to it.
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • Chairman Mao smokes a cigarette.
  • The young Dalai Lama is often separated from his family and in one scene calls out for his mother at night.
  • Kundun hears that his father has died and he consoles his mother. A funeral scene follows.
  • The real life events concerning the Dalai Lama and Tibet, and the film's accuracy in portraying them.
  • Why the corpse of Kundun's father was cut up and fed to vultures after his funeral (obviously a ceremonial practice).
  • A warplane flies over and fires its machine guns at the people below (very briefly seen and no one is hit).
  • We see the following that are all results of violence, but don't see the actions:
  • We briefly see a piece of paper with a black and white photo printed on it that shows three severed heads on the ground.
  • We see a very brief splatter of blood as Kundun is told about children being forced to kill their parents.
  • Kundun has a dream where he is surrounded by hundreds of dead and rather bloody monks lying on the ground around him.
  • Kundun has a daydream of seeing several dead people on horseback who are bloody with some blood also on a white horse.

  • Reviewed December 19, 1997

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