Published January 1, 1998
Martin Scorsese’s reverent Kundun proves the occasion for reminding us of a curious fact about Hollywood—namely that Buddhism is the only religion which Tinseltown treats with respect, let alone reverence. If I were a Buddhist, this would worry me. What is it that is wrong with this religion that a bunch of shallow, ignorant, self-important and very rich people should be attracted to it? One guess might be that it is the doctrine of reincarnation. Movie stars are so much in love with themselves that they are desperate for a warrant to believe that they will keep being re-born into the world and—preferably, I imagine—the entertainment industry. Hey, the 14th Dalai Lama, whose story Scorsese tells, didn’t turn up in California did he? They found him pretty close to where number 13 had pegged out. So there must be a pretty good chance that the studios’ search parties won’t have to travel too far to find the chosen little boy who will be Richard Gere’s next incarnation either.
Still, it is curious that the deference paid to Buddhism is as extreme as the lack of it to other religions. If you only knew about Christianity from the movies, you would assume that it was a religion composed entirely of hypocrites and psychopathic murderers, while any Muslim was almost certain to be an Arab terrorist. But Scorsese’s respectfulness to the Buddhists is so concentrated that his movie is a terrific bore. To be sure, Kundun is full of clever bits of filmmaking, as one might expect, and glorious, magnificent photography of what purport to be the Himalayas but are in fact the Canadian Rockies. It also has some rather nice atmospheric music from the celebrated composer Philip Glass—who, like the Buddhists, is a minimalist. But it is all in the service of a not-very exciting story. Lama is found; lama grows up; Chinese invade; lama tries to accommodate self to them; lama is forced to flee. We already knew all that. And the lama himself is always at one or two removes from the action.
Mind you, that’s the best place to be if you’re going to pitch, as Scorsese does here, a bit of propaganda on behalf of non-violence. Well of course it always costs us a pang to see the rabbit swallowed by the wolf, or the mackerel devoured by the shark, but unfortunately that is rather the way of the world, isn’t it? Why should we find it interesting that the rabbit was a pure soul who didn’t believe in violent resistance or that the mackerel was a holy fish who only wanted to be left to his prayers and had never done the shark any harm? Either way, they were going to get eaten, weren’t they? Well, so does the lama. Or rather he doesn’t, which makes it worse. He is the miraculous mackerel who eluded the jaws of the Chicom shark by a whisker (if fish, other than catfish, had whiskers). But instead of celebrating his escape, Scorsese seems to think it a good cinematic idea to bellyache for two hours about the fact that he had to run away in the first place.
It isn’t. But, at a loss for something to do while watching, you might reflect that finding a child actor to play the part of the Dalai Lama at age five must have been a little like finding the Dalai Lama himself. (Looking for the talent of yesteryear in a fresh face has always been the very essence of film-directing—which may be another reason why Buddhism is so attractive to movie people.) At any rate, Scorsese’s discovery of Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin is a triumph of a similar order. Not quite so striking is the lama aged 12 (Gyurme Tethong) and as a young man (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong). Robert Lin does a very watchable turn as Chairman Mao, who wins the Lama’s concession that “socialism and Buddhism have some things in common.” And they do, too. Both are particularly attractive to movie-people, and both make boring subjects for movies.