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Kundun

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Tencho Gyalpo, Tenzin, Topjar, Robert Lin. (1997, PG-13, 135 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 16, 1998

I mentioned to a friend of mine the other day that I had seen Kundun and after a brief silence to register the odd title, her response was, “Oh no, not another damn Tibet movie!” Well, yes, actually. Another damn Tibet movie. This being Martin Scorsese's take on the whole mess, however, should automatically put the whole affair head-and-shoulders above the recent Brad Pitt vehicle, Seven Years in Tibet, and any number of Richard Gere's anti-Chinese government campaigns. And it does, to a degree. Kundun is a magical film, bursting with unforgettable images and a color palette so heavily drenched in golds and reds that after it's over you feel as though you've just emerged from some riotously colored fever dream. Unfortunately, that's about all you feel. The film traces the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, beginning in 1937 when he was officially “discovered” as the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion at the age of two, to his Chinese-imposed exile from his mountain home in 1959 by Chairman Mao. Much happens along the way, but you may be hard-pressed to recall exactly what: For a film focusing on such a rich emotional tapestry, Kundun is strangely lacking in its emotional core. This may have something to do with the non-traditional cast with whom Scorsese has chosen to work; the film includes no “name” actors, and instead uses an all-Tibetan cast, many of whom had no previous acting experience. There are few distinct connections between the players here, and whether or not that is an accurate representation of how the Dalai Lama's interpersonal relationships worked in reality is anyone's guess. The whole of the film seems dreamlike and unfettered by so many of the simple familial emotions you'd expect in a film that traces, essentially, a character's entire life. The film is a marvel of technique, however (what Scorsese film isn't?). Director of photography Roger Deakins is a longtime member of the Coen Brothers' crew (Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, Barton Fink) and he drapes the scenes in gobs of arresting visual splendor. It's truly the most golden-tinged film I've ever seen (even more so than The Last Emperor) and, as such, tends to look more than a little bit like some hallowed breakfast cereal advertisement from time to time. I doubt that was what cast and crew had in mind, however. It's difficult to imagine Scorsese's work seeming as emotionally stunted as this -- pretty images with no scaffolding behind them -- but perhaps the otherworldly aspects of shooting on location caught him off guard and blinded him with beatific beauty. Not unlike Kundun.

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