Jul 27, 2014

Review: Kundun (1997)

What is Martin Scorsese really known for? It's definitely not Kundun, that's for sure. Everyone is familiar with the gangster/crime movies that he does which are all great and all but I've never heard anyone even mention Kundun or "that Dalai Lama movie that Scorsese did once." It's a completely forgotten movie and was a complete flop when it was released. 

Disney owned the distribution rights for Kundun which seemed like a brave move in face of the guaranteed opposition they'd get from China. Disney is a business after all and why would they want to risk the huge market that China is in terms of box office or DVD sales? According to Scorsese, Disney didn't really push the film too hard in the end, although it did get some award nominations that year. Does Kundun really deserve to be forgotten though?

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Genre: biography, drama, war
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Produced by: Barbara De Fina, Laura Fattori, Melissa Mathiso, etc
Written by: Melissa Mathison
Music by: Philip Glass
Running time: 134 minutes
Production company: De Fina-Cappa, Dune Films, Refuge Productions Inc.
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Country: United States
Language: English, Tibetan, Mandarin
Budget: $28,000,000
Box office: $5,684,789 (North America)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tencho Gyalpo, Tenzin Topjar, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Tenzin Lodoe, Geshi Yeshi Gyatso, Gyatso Lukhang, Lobsang Samten, Jigme Tsarong, Tenzin Trinley, Robert Ling
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Synopsis 


In 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama died. The search for the reborn Dalai Lama has gone on for four years until the regent of Tibet Reting Rinpoche (Sonam Phuntsok) has a vision where he see s a young boy who just might be the one. Near the Chinese border in Amdo, four lamas arrive and administer the test to the boy (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang). He successfully identifies which items belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, making him the future 14th. 

Review 

 

The first thing about Kundun that has to be said is that it is a breathtaking movie to look at visually. The production design is just unbelievable and there is no way that the costumes or the props could look more legitimate or realistic. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought on board to do what he does best. To create visually arresting shots, which he does masterfully.  Anyone who has even the slightest appreciation of how a movie looks can definitely agree that Kundun is a beautiful film. Pair it with the minimalist score from Philip Glass and then you really got something special.

The story is compelling although it does seem to keep a bit of a distance. Kundun might appear to be cold and unemotional but personally I like the effect. I feel that Scorsese is trying to add a certain mysterious and mystical angle into the whole thing which works pretty well. As a viewer you start off kind of unsure about the whole thing. Is this kid really the Dalai Lama? That's before you end up getting sucked up head first into the abyss, almost like being in a trance. Kundun is a journey through the Dalai Lama's life and it's worth taking.

Kundun is part activist movie and part biography movie. I haven't read any of the writings about or by the Dalai Lama, but apparently there are only three things in Kundun that are really changed according to Wikipedia. They're all pretty minor though. There's nothing there that's trying to rewrite history to make things more dramatic. I appreciate Martin Scorsese and Melissa Mathison's attempts at standing their ground and trying to show everything that happened. It isn't pretty and it's nothing anyone can be proud of.

Kundun has given me a new understanding and a new respect for the Tibetan people. This is a movie for anyone who wants to know more about Tibet as well as film nerds who want to drool over Roger Deakins' work. It's a slow burner of a movie that doesn't feature real actors but that's a gamble that paid off in spades if you ask me. Everything seems more real and it's amazing that the actor who played the Dalai Lama as an adult (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) is the grand-nephew of the real 14th Dalai Lama. Kundun may not seem like a Martin Scorsese film in any sense, but that doesn't mean that it should be forgotten.

Rating

 

7.5/10