This old joke ran through my head for about 120 of the 145 minutes of "Kundun." Which is not a good sign, although I offer here a longer review than is normal - because both the subject and the film deserve to be taken seriously. So no more jokes.
I loved watching the images, the panoramas, the exquisitely designed production of "Kundun." All the pretty pictures add up to a great National Geographic experience, and do not, unfortunately, capture the intrigue and conflict surrounding the Buddhists leader who has captured the imagination of a secular society. In short, the Dalai Lama himself ought to be more interesting and would be, if this bio-pic were not so long on reverence and short on politics.
What is it about the Dalai Lama that captivates us? What claims the attention and energy of people from a closet-monk like Richard Gere to an intellectual dynamo like Martin Scorsese? Because the Dalai Lama is primarily a religious leader, his exile - and that of his fellow Tibetans - is yet another example of religious warfare, as he tries to resist the godless Chinese.
The non-violent nature of Buddhism also means the Dalai Lama is in a waiting game and, at the very least, depends on Westerners, so as not to say gun-slingers, to fight his battles. The friends of the Dalai Lama tend to be wealthy and aggressive about fund-raising, as they prosecute his cause with like-minded liberals. But until somebody actually drives the Chinese out and frees Tibet, the Dalai Lama will be little more than the poster boy for Buddhist enlightenment.
Martin Scorsese has made a truncated haghiography of the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. Its title "Kundun" is the title of respect used in addressing the Dalai Lama, on a parallel with "Christ" which means "the annointed one" and was applied early on by Christians to their leader. "Kundun" shows us how a Dalai Lama is sought and discovered, and we watch young Tenzin Gyatso go from a two-year-old toddler through the training and spiritual discipline required of Buddha incarnate.
The details of the Dalai Lama's upbringing are fascinating: Buddhist religious belief dictates an arcane, hierarchical and almost medieval observance of cult ritual. There is a sense of discovery in the way Scorsese reveals the practice of revealed religion, probably because he too is on a road of discovery, and his enthusiasm helps shape the first half of the film. He directs the actors with an assured sensitivity, so that their lack of training and inconsistencies do not torpedo the movie, which often happens when directors employ ethnic minorities for authenticity. Scorsese makes sure we feel that the Tibetans are the real thing: after all, they're not lip-synched and they do have the look of refugees on CNN. So, although we never see the actual 14th Dalai Lama, the people who play him and his priests and advisors are credible as Tibetans. The Tibetans look impoverished in every way but spiritually - and that we take on faith.
The second challenge is to convince us that the story takes place in Tibet, so as to "show the beauty and uniqueness of Tibet," as Scorsese says. That is simply a misguided goal, because it is impossible to shoot in Tibet, and using Algeria and Idaho is basically to misjudge the power and source of authenticity. If something is unique, then logically, it cannot be duplicated in Idaho or austere Algeria or any other underdeveloped country.
What is painfully embarrassing about this is that Scorsese could do it right. He could make a documentary about the actual man, Tenzin Gyatso aka the Dalai Lama, and convince us more readily of the Tibetan cause than with all the cinematic smoke and mirrors and splendid cinematography in "Kundun." Ah, Scorsese protests, the film is not meant as a political protest. It is only a portrait of the Dalai Lama. C'mon Marty, the Dalai is important because of his political role; if all he wanted to do was run a monastery, we'd just give him northern California and be done with it.
But politics must enter the picture, because the Communists invade Tibet and turf out its spiritual leader. The gradual build-up of the threat - from China's just staking claims to the actual influx of soldiers to "liberate" Tibet from its feudal conditions - should be the backbone of the story, since that is what forced the Dalai Lama into exile. But the villains are faceless communists, and the central scene - Mao Tse Tung (played by Robert Lin) meeting with the Dalai Lama - is played only for the camp quality of Mao's smoking with great affectation. We are never told why the Chinese seem to think they have a right to Tibet.
What's wrong with the Chinese Communist claims that Tibet is a corrupt, medieval empire in the service of its monasteries? Tibet certainly looks backward. But whether that can be attributed to Algeria or the country it's playing remains a moot point. Indeed, Scorsese doesn't show us the caste of slaves in "traditional" Tibet or mention unsavory problems like the alarming infant mortality rate.
You can't really have a hero without a worthy foe, and that's where Scorsese as a storyteller must be judged. He fails to take the Chinese seriously, so the conflict never really develops beyond the Dalai Lama's silent dignity. It's difficult to create standard drama out of passive resistance.
Perhaps Philip Glass, who is reputed to ascribe to Buddhism, should have contributed more than the music. His score is unobtrusive and gives depth and resonance to the landscape photography. He creates a thoroughly modern sound that still meshes with the traditional music and musicians in the performances by the members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
Even with so much emphasis on getting real live Tibetans doing honest-to-Buddha Tibetan things, Scorsese fails to take Tibet seriously as a political entity. If the Dalai Lama were to rule the country, what would change? If the exiled intellectual and spiritual leader is as modern as some of his behavior indicates, what would he do, if Richard Gere and company managed to get him his country back? Why should he be restored? What is there about him that should placate us in a world beset with conflict initiated by religious leaders? I guess what I'm asking for is something more "documentary" in a style - to match the veracity of the content of "Kundun." Indeed, it was "produced with the cooperation and contribution of His Holiness the Dalai Lama," according to the credits, and if you can't trust the incarnation of Buddha himself, who can you trust?
Other than the story, the film is a stunning display of 20 million dollars - an esthetic triumph that cost more than the GNP of Tibet. That, too, is a dreadful irony.
Story and politics aside, "Kundun" awakens your soul with its sere beauty. The film has the elegance of splendid isolation. As does Buddhism. I guess that's why it can coexist with disgraceful poverty without seeming inadequate as a religion. But I can only guess. Because "Kundun" doesn't offer much instruction on the subjects of Buddhism and Tibet. After a brief introduction to the young Dalai Lama, it only confirms what we've all known through several less than successful films: Scorsese can cook up fabulous images, but when he gets grandiose, he fails to get results.
If it took the Tibet-for-the-Tibetans trend to turn Scorsese away
from the senseless violence of "Cape Fear" and "Casino" and toward
non-violence, then "Kundun" is a good thing.
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