Thursday, January 12, 2012


Film: Kundun
Format: DVD from Schmaling Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass DVD player.

Some films I find difficult for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are difficult because they are poorly made or badly plotted. In the case of Kundun, the reason for its difficulty for me is much more nuanced and complex. This film is expertly made and gorgeously filmed. The problem I find here is one of focus and direction rather than skill or quality or even subject matter. There are simply things going on here passed off as historical truth that I cannot get my mind around.

Kundun is essentially the history of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, secular and spiritual leader of Tibet, who has ruled in exile for more than a half century. Such a history is naturally of considerable interest. But, and this is where I will probably take heat from others, this history is enmeshed with spiritual, religious, and otherworldly portents and signs of significance.

“Of course,” you say. “This is, after all, the story of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It is only natural that there a spiritual side to this story.”

And with that I agree. I don’t have a problem with the idea that the film would naturally explore the spiritual side of Tibet and of Tenzin Gyatso. Where the problem comes in for me is that this film is less an exploration of the history of his finding, teaching, coronation, and flight from Tibet in front of the People’s Army of China and more a strict beatification of the man himself. Watch this movie and take it at face value, and you have no option but to simply believe that the man is divine.

I don’t want to take away from the more technical aspects of the film, which are as good as they get. The cinematography here is absolutely sublime. Additionally, the color and pageantry and spectacle of the various ceremonies and aspects of Tibetan life. Additionally, Scorsese was able to bring out professional-level performances from a non-professional cast, a number of whom are actually related to the Dalai Lama. On a technical level, this film is as good as it gets.

But again, I am continually drawn back to the idea that to accept this film and story as it is told, I must accept most of the tenets of Gelug Buddhism, which I frankly do not. I do not accept that Tenzin Gyatso is the reborn spirit of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas. I do not believe in the signs and portents that are given here, or that the Dalai Lama has the ability to foresee the future, as he is seen doing multiple times in the course of this film. I simply do not believe this, and thus I do not believe in the veracity of the film put before me.

Let me put it another way. A few months ago, I watched the entirety of the three-season television show Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s evident that a great deal of that show was borrowed from the life of the current Dalai Lama. The determination of his identity by choosing items from his past life, the spiritual connections, even the name Gyatso appears in the show as one of the Avatar’s teachers. And for Avatar, I buy it. I buy it because it is inherently a fantasy, something that does not purport itself to be a reflection of the real world in any way. It is a fantasy world complete with (essentially) magic and spirits and an entire, populated spirit world.

Not so for Kundun, which purports to be a part of the real world, mystic signs and portents, supernatural powers, rebirth, and all.

And so I find myself relatively conflicted on this film. On the one hand, it is an expertly made film by one of the greatest working filmmakers today. It is a difficult film to dislike because of the care and skill with which it has been made. On the other hand, the premise is something I find ludicrous on its face. I do not ascribe magical powers or divinity to any man, no matter how impressive.

This is not a knock against the Dalai Lama himself. He seems by all accounts to be an impressive and decent human being, a man who has sacrificed much for his beliefs, and who is willing to do anything for the betterment of his people. I respect that and admire that. But it still doesn’t make him a mystical figure, and there’s simply no getting around that.

I will say, though, that I did appreciate that at least the spirituality here is something other than what is traditionally hammered at us. The fact that at the very least I could get away from the strict Western view of religion—particularly as practiced by many of the most rabid supporters—was a welcome relief.

Why to watch Kundun: A tale of modern spirituality that differs greatly from most Western stories attributing everything to Christian teaching.
Why not to watch: As usual, spirituality offers no explanations other than itself.


  1. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, but was fascinated by the movie's portrayal of the Vajrayana fusion with native Tibetan Bön spirituality. All the folkloric shamanism and fortune-telling are integral to that style of Buddhism-- a religion that, as it's moved across boundaries from India to China to elsewhere, has taken the shape of its various geographic and cultural containers.

    I don't know the behind-the-scenes trivia about Scorsese's film, but since you appear to know some (or a lot) of its background, perhaps you can speak to the question of whether Scorsese was trying to portray the Dalai Lama's story in a way that would be more or less consistent with Tibetan Buddhism's self-understanding. Scorsese's too subtle a man to have created a blind-faith hagiography, after all; it'd be interesting to know what his aims were in making this film. My guess is that he's probably as skeptical of the magical elements as you are (as he would have been while filming "The Last Temptation of Christ," with its quasi-Gnostic Jesus).

  2. Y'know, I really don't know on that. It wouldn't surprise me if Scorsese's goal was to produce something like a pseudo-mirror, as it were, something with which those practicing the faith would see as consistent with their own view of their faith.

    But I really don't know. I only know how it is presented here, and it comes of very much like a Tibetan Buddhism version of a Christian film. Any and all warts have essentially been removed.

  3. I see this problem – to some degree - in almost all biopics, but it is rather strong here...

  4. Yeah. I guess I don't expect actual reality in a typical biopic (see Yankee Doodle Dandy), but I do at least expect something that appears like it could be reality.

  5. I had a lot of similar feelings in my recent viewing of this film. I too struggled with separating fact from fiction and certainly don't see the Dalai Lama as a mystical figure. My guess is that Scorsese was trying to depict the Dalai Lama in human terms (complete with faults and self-doubt) - while placing the character in a historical and cultural context (without making any real judgement).

  6. Yep. I'm a skeptic on most things, so signs and portents read as "coincidence" or "bullshit" to me. No disrespect intended, of course.