It must have come as a surprise to filmgoers in the mid-90s that the next Martin Scorsese feature film would focus on the childhood of the 14th Dalai Lama. Then again, it probably came as a similar surprise in the late ‘80s when it was announced that the filmmaker behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull was hard at work adapting The Last Temptation of Christ for the screen.
As a director, Martin Scorsese contains multitudes. He is known primarily for gangster pictures (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed), yet each yens for the spiritual while exploring the limitations of men and the guilt they carry with them. Simultaneously, Scorsese is known for a string of highly praised, though little seen, spiritual pictures (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence). Curiously, each exhibits violence not commonly seen in religious films. It makes for an interesting dichotomy: Violent men with spiritual impulses and spiritual men in a violent world.
Of those seven films listed above, the one most overlooked and least understood is Scorsese’s 1997 drama, Kundun. But with Scorsese’s latest picture, The Irishman (his most spiritual gangster picture since Mean Streets) soon to hit theaters and Netflix, the time seems ripe for Kino Lorber’s newly released and lovingly packaged special edition Blu-ray of Kundun.
With a script by Melissa Mathison, Kundun opens in Tibet on a young boy who will soon be discovered to be the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha (played by three actors: age 2, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang; age 5, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin; age 12, Gyurme Tethong). Much like the extra-terrestrial Mathison dreamed up for E.T., the young Dalai Lama is a child of observation, peace, and kindness. He displays moments no child could possibly know — he looks for, and finds, “his teeth;” dentures used by the 13th Dalai Lama — while also exercising compassion difficult for many adults. When he comes across two beetles fighting, he gently separates them.
All signs point to yes for the monks searching for the reincarnation of the Buddha, but what they do not yet know is that this Dalai Lama will be much more than a spiritual leader. This Dalai Lama (played as a young adult by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) will take on the role of a political leader, one who will be forced into exile due to a hostile takeover by China. Refusing to raise his fist while also trying to lessen the bloodshed, His Holiness will leave Tibet for India on March 30, 1959. He has yet to return.
Kundun certainly isn’t the title that leaps to mind when discussing the oeuvre of Scorsese. Upon its release, the movie was received warmly, but with lackluster response. Musing to himself in Richard Schickel’s 2004 documentary, Scorsese on Scorsese, the director poses a theory:
It’s antithetical to what we know as Western drama. But does everything have to be Western drama? Why can’t there be a film that the drama happens internally? Does a story have to be, constantly, the way films are being made in this country? It’s there room for a story to be made a different way?
Kundun is indeed a film of interiors. Composed primarily of subjective shots, from the Dalai Lama’s point of view, and a smattering of dream sequences, Kundun is an impressionistic film, an odd bedfellow to Taxi Driver, which uses a similar approach to understand Travis Bickel’s loneliness and anger. Three images, in particular, illustrate this point. This first, an omen: the Dalai Lama has of blood on his hands and all of his monks surrounding him, slaughtered.
The second, a reality: Following the perfunctory meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong (Robert Lin), where Mao speaks the words the Dalai Lama fears, “Religion is poison.” There is no reasoning, and His Holiness stares at Mao’s shoes — Mao’s beautiful, shiny black shoes.
And the third, a realization: the Dalai Lama preparing to cross into India. He turns back to see his monks bowing to him in reverence. Then a cut to the Dalai Lama’s face, and then a cut back to his point of view: Empty horses smeared with blood. The Dalai Lama has made safely to India, but his fate will not be the fate of all Tibetan Monks.
Though few came to Kundun’s defense in 1997 and ‘98, the movie did not slip away unnoticed. Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo received Academy Award nominations for their work in costume design and art direction-set decoration. So did Roger Deakins for his cinematography, and Philip Glass for the movie’s magnificent score. (Nothing for Thelma Schoonmaker’s masterful editing). And, like all great films, Kundun will wait, on celluloid and on disc, until it finds the time for which it belongs.
Maybe that time is now. And not just because of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release, or The Irishman’s upcoming run on Netflix. And not even because U.S. commercial relations with China grow all the more and more contentious — though that is an intriguing aspect. But because Kundun explores what it truly means to live a spiritual life. And not one that simply professes a static belief, but one that allows the world to shape and challenge that belief. Like those magnificent sand mandalas that take days to create and minutes to destroy, nothing in life is permanent. And it is only by given into that impermanence that we can hope to transcend it. It’s what Scorsese’s been searching for since Mean Streets all those years ago: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it at home. You do it on the streets. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.”
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Melissa Mathison
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Starring: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Robert Lin
Touchstone Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 134 minutes, Opened December 25, 1997
Kundun (Special Edition) — Kino Lorber, Released Oct. 28, 2019.
Blu-ray special features include:
Audio Commentary by film historian and critic Peter Tonguette
In Search of Kundun — Documentary about the making of Kundun
Compassion in Exile — Documentary about the 14th Dalai Lama
Interviews with Martin Scorsese, Philip Glass, Melissa Mathison, and Michael Henry Wilson
EPK extras with cast and crew
Booklet essay from Zade Constantine