Kundun Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Kundun

Given that Martin Scorsese always seems to get typecast as a guns’n’gangsters director, it’s worth remembering that he’s always shown an unusually wide range: over the past thirty years, he’s made a Depression-era melodrama (Boxcar Bertha), a feminist road movie (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a full-scale period musical (New York New York), a Biblical epic (Last Temptation of Christ), a 19th-century costume drama (The Age of Innocence), a brace of eclectic documentaries (Italianamerican, American Boy) and what for my money is the finest rock concert film ever made (The Last Waltz).

So while eyebrows were raised when he announced plans to make a biopic of the Dalai Lama with a cast almost entirely made up of unknown non-professionals, it’s probably less surprising coming from Scorsese than it would have been from, say, James Cameron – though when all’s said and done this still strays further off the beaten track than anything he’s done in the past: indeed, it’s probably the strangest mainstream Hollywood film since the ultra-stylised Japanese-language Mishima (directed by regular Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader).

As with Mishima (which remains unreleased in Japan to this day), Kundun became a political hot potato, largely thanks to the fact that it was financed by Touchstone, a subsidiary of Disney – who at the time was cosying up to the Chinese government with the aim of building a theme park there. For some unaccountable reason, they objected to a resolutely pro-Tibet (and therefore implicitly anti-Chinese) film, and applied none too subtle pressure on Disney to scrap it mid-production. In the event, the film was completed, though Scorsese later alleged that its unusually low-key release owed more than a little to backstage political manoeuverings.

Strongly reminiscent of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Kundun is a large-scale reconstruction of early-to-mid-twentieth century Tibet and shows how the Dalai Lama was chosen and educated, reaching maturity at about the time the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949. Despite numerous conciliatory discussions with Chairman Mao, the Dalai Lama decides to flee his native country for ever – a journey that forms the film’s dramatic climax.

Kundun looks absolutely stunning – indeed, there’s hardly a frame that isn’t a masterpiece of lighting, colour and composition. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and production and costume designer Dante Ferretti (whose CV includes films by Fellini and Terry Gilliam) both delivered Oscar-calibre work, though as Kundun was released in the year of Titanic it never stood much of a chance in that department. There’s no doubt that in purely visual terms the film is a masterpiece – yet it falls sadly short in the dramatic department.

My real problem with Kundun is that for all Scorsese’s attempts at creating authentically mythic resonance, at base it’s a surprisingly conventional biopic. The biggest liability is Melissa (E.T.) Mathison’s wordy, overstated script, which insists on spelling everything out in dialogue that rarely rises above the banal (the fact that the cast, by and large, aren’t native English speakers doesn’t help). As one lengthy dialogue scene merged into another, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s astounding Horse Thief (which Scorsese must have seen, if only because it’s the most high-profile Tibetan film), which had virtually no dialogue and yet was far more eloquent in its depiction and indeed defence of Tibetan culture.

Philip Glass’s score, too, sounds a little over-familiar: once the novelty of being underscored by deep, rich Tibetan bass chanting has worn off, it’s the same old endlessly reiterated ostinati that we’ve all heard rather too many times before. It’s particularly unfortunate that Glass also scored Mishima, as that’s a film that attempts and indeed brings off a far more complex and conceptually adventurous approach to Far Eastern culture. There are hints that Scorsese has similar ambitions – notably a couple of sequences involving a blood-red carpet of slaughtered monks and the wind blowing across and eradicating elaborate pictures made up of grains of coloured sand – but the plodding script keeps dragging it back to earth.

This is the kind of film that really needs the extra visual and aural definition of DVD to work in the home, and happily Touchstone have done a pretty good job on that score. Visually, it’s pin-sharp, with punchy, vibrant colours and impressive amounts of detail considering that it’s a non-anamorphic transfer – it’s particularly strong on the film’s vivid use of primary colours: reds, yellows, greens.

Aurally, it’s even more effective, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack coping manfully with the deep bass rumbles of the Tibetan choirs and large-scale crowd scenes, while also excelling in the quieter, more intimate moments. There are eighteen chapter stops.

In terms of extras, sadly it’s the usual Buena Vista minimalism – just the theatrical trailer and, bizarrely, a suggestion that if you enjoyed Kundun you might also appreciate Sling Blade, The English Patient, Evita or A Thousand Acres, which I wouldn’t necessarily have regarded as a foregone conclusion. And that’s it – no biographies (particularly annoying with this film, as I’d have liked to have learned more about the otherwise unknown cast), no production notes (for a film whose production and indeed post-production history made regular headlines), no interviews with Scorsese or any of his collaborators (I recall numerous interviews with Philip Glass at the time the film came out), nada, zip, zilch.

A conspiracy theorist could easily claim that this low-key DVD is the same side of the coin that was responsible for the film’s low-key theatrical release – but given that Buena Vista is not exactly a stranger to lacklustre DVDs, that’s probably being too generous!

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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