When you look at a map of China, the entire southwestern portion is the
plateau of Tibet. China ruled it in the 1800s, but Tibet won its independence
in 1911. It was then ruled by the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader who is
believed to have been reincarnated over and over throughout history. Then,
after 40 years, China reasserted its dominance under Mao Tse-Tung's leadership.
The struggle continued throughout the '50s, and finally the Dalai Lama fled
to India for asylum, where he remains to this day. This movie, written by
Melissa Mathison, is the story of his life until he left Tibet.
In this film the 14th Dalai Lama, named Kundun, is played by several
actors since his life is traced from age 2. All the actors in this role
[Tenzin Yeshi Paichang (age 2), Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin (age 5), Gyurme
Tethong (age 10), and Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (adult)] capably show the transformation
of a child who relishes the attention and power he gets from being chosen
as the leader of his country to the immense burden of responsibility brought
on by that position. The rest of the cast is also impeccable; all are real
Tibetans, proud and intent on telling their nation's sad story. Kundun's
teacher, Ling Rimpoche, is played with love and reverence by Tenzin Trinley,
as is his Lord Chamberlain (Gyatso Lukhang), and Reting Rimpoche (Sonam
Phuntsok), his friend who brings him to the attention of the religious leaders.
Scorsese's direction is a little fragmented at times, as is Mathison's
screenplay. The story has periods where it seems muddled in symbolism, but
the nightmares and hallucinations seen by the boy are striking, thanks in
no small part to the breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins. Also
effective is the destruction of the intricate sand art by Kundun's own hand,
symbolic of all that is Tibetan being destroyed by its leader's forced departure.
All in all, Kundun is beautifully produced and honestly acted. It's unfortuate for Scorsese that after Seven Years In Tibet, his effort looks like an echo. One difference may be noted in the credits: Scorsese thanks the Dalai Lama himself for his help, suggesting that this story is told from the, er, Lama's mouth. Sorry. ****½
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