Kundun – the Movie

780 Views 0 Comment

The movie 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.

Historically, ”Kundun” is a straightforward chronology that begins in 1937 with the Dalai Lama’s discovery at the age of 2 1/2 in a Tibetan village near the Chinese border. In the opening section of the film, Tibetan monks give the boy, Tenzin Gyatso, as he is named, a series of tests. He proves to them that he is the fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of love and compassion. Two years later, that boy, the re-incarnated Buddha of Compassion, is carried by caravan from his home to the capital city of Lhasa, to be trained by monks and scholars for his role as Tibet’s spiritual and political leader. In 1950, when the boy (that his teachers now call Kundun), reaches the age of 15, his homeland is invaded by the Chinese Army of Mao Zedong. This crisis leads officials in the Tibetan government to vest the Dalai Lama with temporal power in order to quell the fears of the populace. In a brief encounter with Mao, the young Tibetan leader recognizes that his society of spirit and nonviolence clashes with China’s culture of materialism and militarism.

The story concentrates on the Dalai Lama’s youth; it sees the world through the eyes of a boy who has been pampered, sheltered and adored for most of his life, while undergoing rigorous spiritual training. While the film touches on the ferocious power politics swirling around him, it sees them through the innocent eyes of a youth who is deliberately shielded from the harsher side of politics. The character reveals a warmly human figure, sometimes balking at his situation, wrestling with ideas and beliefs, occasionally gazing longingly at the world of regular folk.

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 story is told in blocs that jump forward in time, with a new actor replacing his predecessor at the beginning of each new chapter. Using four Tibetan actors to portray the Dalai Lama at different ages, the movie wants to distill the essence of holiness and create an idealized portrait of spiritual enlightenment in the context of 20th-century. The movie exhibits an awed fascination with the plumage and pageantry of religious ritual, sacred artifacts, glittering gold robes worn by the young Dalai Lama, and is steeped in a churchlike atmosphere with an air of royal solemnity.

More remarkable is that the film was created entirely outside of Tibet — in Morocco. The movie was not filmed in Tibet. It was located mainly in Ouarzazate and other places in Morocco, partly in British Columbia  and Idaho. Presumably, China‘s posture makes Tibetan locales in film about refugee Tibetans or the Dalai Lama unwelcome. The closest film crews in general are likely in Ladakh or Sikkim, India. The mountains, the stone monasteries, tall palaces, the entire look and atmosphere of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, were expertly fashioned, complete with weathered texture.

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.

Kundun (which means “Ocean of Wisdom”) contains some breathtaking cinematography filled with unexpected movement and odd angles, dazzling costumes and realistic settings, and has an impressive musical score by avant garde composer Philip Glass who used traditional Tibetan vocal and instrumental forms.

“Kundun” is as near a nonverbal movie experience. It captures the essentials of an ancient culture and builds to China’s brutal invasion, both real and spiritual. Kundun” is a film with a surprisingly rich inner life and great moments of stone silence and stillness. This presentation of the childhood and adolescence of the fourteenth Dalai Lama is memorable mainly for its moral message about the courage it takes to adhere to the Buddhist principle of nonviolence in the face of so much suffering and injustice.

Martin Scorsese makes a biopic about a religious leader who has encouraged peace and non-violence all his life. Kundun is a biopic full of historical and political references, it focuses on a very controversial issue (The Chinese government was so upset with the film that Scorsese was banned from ever entering China) and portrays a turbulent and pretty much chaotic period of a religious leader’s life.


The famous words of the young boy Dalai Lama, when faced with the Chinese invasion, “What should I do, I am just a boy,” has been chronicled.

The President Mao’s infamous saying, “Religion is poison” is also present in the movie.

Growing up in his Palace (Potala), the Dalai Lama learns that, “there has always been a prison at the Potala”.

When leaving Tibet, at the Indian Border, Dalai Lama is asked one profound but simple question, “Are you Lord Buddha?”

When Chinese military music begins to blare in Lhasa, the young Dalai Lama remarks: “They take away our silence”.

The Dalai Lama is tuned into “visions” about the future, and the “hissing” Oracle is consulted before any decision is taken.

Kundun  was nominated in 1998 for Oscars in cinematography, music, art direction and set decoration. It won numerous Film Critics’ awards in 1997 & 1998 for Cinematography and Music.


photo credit : videoland



Leave a Comment