A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: A Forgotten Masterpiece – Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun”

In 1997 Scorsese directed the sprawling controversial epic of the 14th Dalai Lama, written by “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison, that gave Scorsese a box office flop and left him and his film banned from ever entering the country. The legendary filmmaker also personally received continuous death threats, rendering the director unable to go to public events without a bodyguard. “Kundun” is considered the second film in an unofficial trilogy about crises of faith from director Scorsese, positioned between 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and 2016’s “Silence”. It received four Oscar nominations and was a prestigious piece of work by the world class master filmmaker. It also boasted sublime cinematography from an up and coming and now legendary Roger Deakins, features one of Philip Glass’ best film scores and a beautifully constructed screenplay by Mathison. Her script culminated from interviews with the Dalai Lama and was inspired by her fascination for the young boy, who was raised to take over a country that would soon find itself in great political turmoil and forcing him to make drastic political decisions for his people. “Kundun” has beautiful cinematography, led by Scorsese’s prowling camera work, a pulsating score and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s inventive and occasionally startling editing. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s most beautiful films which, following nearly two decades of neglect, deserves to be seen again.

Martin Scorsese is one of the most iconic, legendary and greatest filmmakers in Hollywood. It’s hard not to be impressed by his career, as his films are endlessly memorable. While there aren’t many, unfortunately there are still a few titles that get overlooked in his filmography. The biggest forgotten film is Scorsese’s 1997 forgotten masterpiece “Kundun”. 

It is no secret that Martin Scorsese is devoutly religious. His quest to re-evaluate and come to terms with his faith was the driving force behind his highly controversial masterpiece “The Last Temptation of Christ” or his modern day masterpiece from a few years Barack,  “Silence”. After witnessing “The Last Temptation of Christ”, being boycotted and protested against, while theaters in Paris were being burnt and people getting hurt. 

Scorsese and his film was banned from ever entering the country, along with all films by its distributor Disney. Due to the fact that the Dalai Lama is considered a threat and a separatist by the Chinese government, the movie’s portrayal of the Tibetan leader in a positive light was severely frowned upon. Along with being banned in several countries, Scorsese personally received continuous death threats due to his “blasphemous” portrayal of Christ as a flawed human being, rendering the director unable to go to public events without a bodyguard. One would imagine that Scorsese would not be all that keen on directing yet another religion-based movie and risking similar repercussions. 

What’s baffling is that Scorsese was first on the list of directors that screenwriter Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”) had desired, as she wanted turn her script about the 14th Dalai Lama into a motion picture. “Kundun” is the Tibetan word for “the presence” (of the Buddha) and the Dalai Lama’s alternative name. “Kundun” would become the title of Scorsese and Mathison’s project, a film that took several years and fourteen screenplay drafts to make.

Universal Pictures had already backed out as a distributor, so Disney made an attempt to secure its credentials as a serious-minded studio and had decided to distribute it under their adult owned studio Touchstone Pictures. Released in December 1997, just in time for the Oscar nominations. It received four nominations for: Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, art direction and Francesca Lo Schiavo, set decoration), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score (Philip Glass), but the film won none. 

With a budget of $30 million, the film was a prestigious piece of work by the world class master filmmaker. With Scorsese at the helm, it boasted sublime cinematography from an up and coming and now legendary Roger Deakins, features one of Philip Glass’ best film scores and a beautifully constructed screenplay by Melissa Mathison. 

The backlash from the Chinese was so dramatic that Disney instantly regretted it. Disney boss Michael Eisner had met with the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji in October 1998 and apologized for the film, calling it ‘a stupid mistake.’ He went on to say in the same meeting: ‘This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it’. 

Becoming a flop for Disney and not gaining much of a following on home entertainment releases. Disney felt it was strategic to brush it under the rug and fix the relationship with the Chinese people, by reopening China’s huge markets in Disney products as well as the development and building of Disneyland Shanghai.

Interestingly, Melissa Mathison’s motivation for writing the script did not stem from her interest in Buddhism, Tibet or even it’s complex history. What fascinated her most was the extraordinary story of a young child separated from its parents at a very young age and deemed the reincarnation of the previous spiritual leader, the 13th Dali Lama. A story of a boy who grew up surrounded by monks and treated as holy. A kid raised to take over a country that would soon find itself in great political turmoil, forcing him to make political decisions that would have a lasting impact on his people. 

At first, Mathison had set out to make “Kundun” a kid’s movie, but eventually found herself overwhelmed by the complexities of reality that demanded the film to instead, be made for a more mature audience. The more she did her research, the further her vision diverged from her initial path. She wrote to the Dalai Lama, informing him that she intended on creating a screenplay based on his early years and he responded with interest. 

Mathison and the Dalai Lama met in California, along with the Dalai Lama’s advisors and Mathison’s then husband Harrison Ford (yes Han Solo himself) where Mathison had pitched the movie, telling the Dalai Lama that she wanted “to cover the stages of life from infancy to young adulthood; that within the context of his upbringing and Tibet’s history.

The Dalai Lama’s response? “Okay, if you think this is a good idea, you can go ahead and try”. Ford and Mathison were then invited to spend several days with him and she took the opportunity to get the inside scoop on the spiritual leader’s life experiences. When the first draft of the script was finished, Mathison and Ford went to India to visit the Dalai Lama. He gave her corrections and she decided to interview the people of Dharamshala, where the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration and the Dalai Lama’s residence are located. 

As her perception expanded and her horizons broadened, the material she was working on changed and deepened. Her initial disinterest in Buddhism and Tibet’s history dissipated and she found herself immersed in this beautiful spiritual practice, which in turn greatly influenced both her approach and her writing. Mathison wanted the movie to show, not just tell. The Buddhist practices were to be presented as a reality of what the monks and the Dalai Lama were living, not merely a philosophy to be elaborated on. And Scorsese was the perfect choice director to translate her intentions onto the screen. 

Scorsese came on board in 1989, although it was not until seven years later in 1996 that the movie could finally be made, due to the director’s other engagements and contracts. Directed in between “Casino” and another forgotten gem “Bringing Out The Dead” with Nicolas Cage. The seven year waiting period was a productive one, where Mathison and Scorsese worked together on multiple drafts, as revealed by the filmmaker: “It is about where you arrive. I must say that we had to go from the end back to the beginning, and it was quite a journey for us, too. First of all, Melissa Mathison’s writing: we went through fourteen drafts, and we knew we were on the right track when our last draft resembled the first and second drafts more”. 

Scorsese had also met with the Dalai Lama several times and reported feeling good and relaxed within his presence, as well as having “a very kind and compassionate aura around him”. He described Kundun as “not egotistical and pretty much down to earth and realistic.” And what were the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on Scorsese? What is known is that he had not watched a single movie made by the director, for his pictures were deemed too violent for the eyes of the spokesperson for peace. 

The cast is made up of non-actors, who all do a superb job. While relatives of the Dalai Lama played some of the roles. Including: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (a grandnephew), plays the adult Dalai Lama and Tencho Gyalpo (a niece), playing his mother. The story of the life and tribulations of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet is told in a chronologically-linear narrative, taking the audience across the stepping stones of the Lama’s childhood through his growth and coming of age to his fight for Tibet, seeking refuge from the Chinese invasion and to bring his country under domination and control. 

Since Scorsese wanted to cast Tibetans from the onset, his casting manager Ellen Lewis was tasked with taking a camera and traveling through Tibetan communities in the USA and India, trying to find people with the required physical characteristics and with a decent enough grasp of the English language that would enable them to channel the emotions the story was imbued with. 

Only three cast members (Sonam Phuntsok in the role of Reting, Tashi Dhondup as the adult Lobsang and Jampa Lungtok who plays the Nechung Oracle) are members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and the rest of the cast are not professional actors. When Lewis was introduced to Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, the Dalai Lama’s real-life grandnephew, she knew she had found the right person to play the 18-year old Kundun, describing the young man as having depth, enough confidence to handle the material, a sense of humor, as well as a lightness of spirit. In short, all the qualities they were looking for in a person was present, who was to represent the Dalai Lama truthfully and without pretense. 

Several other cast members are also related to the people they portray in the film: Tencho Gyalpo plays her grandmother (Kundun’s mother), Tenzin Lodoe stepped into the shoes of his uncle (Kundun’s brother) and Gawa Youngdung was cast as her older sister (an old village woman). Tenzin Trinley was cast as Kundun’s tutor Ling Rinpoche, without Lewis knowing that the man had actually been Ling Rinpoche’s student. It is undeniable that casting not just non-actors, but also non-actors who were tasked with playing their own family members, conjured a special kind of magic, both on set and on screen. For they were meant to bring to life that which was already very much alive within them of the essence, tradition and humility of their deeply meaningful spiritual practice as a way of life. 

Mathison recalls how they would enter the room that was “portraying” the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s winter palace from 1649 to 1959 located in today’s Tibet Autonomous Region in China and would start either crying or praying, a testament to the extent to which they were still moved by both the Potala’s significance and the opportunity to be a part of a movie that is meant to display their history, heritage and lifestyle for the world to see.

“Kundun” is the centerpiece of a trilogy of religious films from Scorsese, which began with “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and concluded with “Silence” (2016). All three films see charismatic religious figures clashing within a world, which is essentially antagonistic to each of their faith’s. 

In “Kundun”, Scorsese uses his diligence and discerning eye to depict a world where peace and compassion reign, with the concept of the sacredness of life permeating its core, much the same way he utilized his talents to realistically portray the violence he was surrounded with, in the movies that he is best known for. 

But how does a filmmaker go about to truthfully document such a world, where the main character is enveloped in quiet contemplation, characterized by an air of peacefulness and serenity, that demands to be actively lived in and experienced so it can be entertaining and be fully grasped by the audience? Working with esteemed and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Scorsese had managed to achieve that, by creating both an experience and a spectacle. 

The characters are framed against stunning landscapes and scenery, enabling us to absorb the lushness of the surroundings that make up their secluded peaceful world. The dominant colors are of brilliant yellows and reds, creating a mesmerizing effect and successfully lulling us into a sense of security and safety. Deakins stated that the movie is “very much a poem, rather than a traditional narrative film” and more in line of a “mood piece”, than anything else. 

Scorsese collaborates with his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose editing is more of a poetic one this time and feels as though “Kundun” was cut on an emotional level. Filmed in Morocco where he had previously shot “The Last Temptation of Christ” and most of the crew came from Italy, Morocco, Great Britain and the United States. The three working languages on set were French, English and Italian and many members of the crew were tri-lingual, with some of them also acting as interpreters from Arabic and Tibetan. 

The intention behind “Kundun” was never to provide a compelling narrative in the form of eventful plot-developments or to take either a political or religious stance. What Scorsese and screenwriter Mathison, set out to do was to offer us a glimpse into the world of a young boy born into a culture that considered him divine. 

A child who spent his days living in accordance with teachings that will later on define his political decisions, like his insistence on non-violence as the only viable option. “Kundun” presents us with the unfolding of a young life destined for greatness, accompanied by beautiful imagery and a score that mimics the nature of life itself. 

Although criticized for its release for a reverence towards its subject, filmed with Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography and Scorsese’s prowling camera work, a pulsating score and Thelma Schoonmaker’s inventive and occasionally startling editing. “Kundun” proves that for Scorsese, meditation is a dynamic activity, as it takes it’s subject seriously and within on his own terms.

There’s an excellent joke in the first season of “The Sopranos”, where Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and his friends are waiting outside a nightclub in New York when Martin Scorsese is rushed past the line. A protege gangster of Tony Soprano’s, shouts to the director of a film they live by, “Goodfellas”: ‘Yo, Marty! Kundun. I liked it!’. While it isn’t the first choice you’d expect to come to Christopher’s mind, but the Scorsese’s Dalai Lama biopic needs all the love it can get. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s most beautiful films which, following nearly two decades of neglect, deserves to be seen again.

“Kundun” is now available on Blu Ray, thanks to distributor Kino Lorber as a 2-disc Special Edition.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

•Interview with Director Martin Scorsese (32:20)

•Interview with Composer Philip Glass (43:38)

•Interview with Screenwriter Melissa Mathison (36:40)

•IN SEARCH OF KUNDUN with Martin Scorsese – Documentary (85:00)

•Interview with IN SEARCH OF KUNDUN Director Michael Henry Wilson (53:36)

•Compassion in Exile – Documentary (62:00)

•EPK Extras with Cast and Crew (38:52)

•Audio Commentary by Film Historian and Critic Peter Tonguette

•Booklet Essay by Filmmaker Zade Constantine

•Theatrical Trailer

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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