A Month Of Marty: Tripwire Reviews Kundun

A Month Of Marty: Tripwire Reviews Kundun

Lack Of Enlightenment

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1997’s biopic Kundun reviewed by Joel Meadows…

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang

Two years after gangster drama Casino, Scorsese opted to go off on another unexpected tangent. As with Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese presumably felt that Kundun was a cleansing exercise after the dispiritingly brutal antics of his last outing, and an opportunity to expand his spiritual horizons. And so he went with a biopic of Tibet’s fourteenth Dalai Lama.

A director attempting something radically different is of course to be commended –  Scorsese has indeed moved away from his usual oeuvre on a number of occasions, most recently with 2016’s Silence. However, Kundun, while it looks sumptuous and vibrantly colourful, lacks any innate drama. It does have a few moments when it engages with the audience: the exchanges between the Lama and Chairman Mao in China, witnessing the Lama driving a car for the first time (juxtaposing modernity with his simple lifestyle)  and also a scene where one of the Lama’s closest friends has a traditional sky burial, where vultures dismember them, are all pretty effective, but for the most part it is a very pretty travelogue that offers little for the viewer. The four actors who play the Lama are all competent enough (Tsarong, Tethong, Tenzin and Paichang) but there is no connection between them and the audience.

The film had its genesis when screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who wrote ET, met with the Dalai Lama and subsequently asked if she could chronicle his life. She conducted a number of interviews with him and once she completed her script, she suggested that Scorsese would be ideal to come on board as director. It is well known that he was originally going to be a Catholic priest, and so this explains his obsession with religion, which has manifested itself in a number of different ways throughout his filmmaking career. Scorsese even met with the Dalai Lama and found him “not egotistical, and pretty much down-to-earth and realistic.”

Kundun is a very thoughtful and expertly delineated film, but it lacks the emotional impact of other Scorsese films that touch on similar themes, like Silence, and so the finished product ended up being a beautiful albeit rather empty work. Scorsese being brought on board echoed a similar out of depth scenario to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, in as much as he had no previous with the source material. With Last Temptation we are able to connect with Jesus the man before he ascends to messianic status – with Kundun  the Dalai Lama is already a fully formed godlike entity, and so everything revolves around his faith rather than what is a rather simplistic narrative.

With the exception of the final reel, wherein the Dalai Lama and a coterie of his followers are chased out of Tibet by the Chinese, the movie comes across as a very extended New Age video, ambitious in its scope but never concerned with asking questions. Ultimately, despite such misgivings, it is clear that the producers never intended the project to be much more than an experience that eschews traditional cinematic tropes. One for the devoted (either of Scorsese or Buddhism) but not a film that could ever be commercially viable – and it certainly was never likely to make inroads in the Chinese market.

Here’s the film’s trailer

Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well


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Kundun by Martin Scorsese
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