#TBT Reviews: Kundun (1997)

Let’s play a game of ‘One of These Things is Not Like the Other’ shall we?

  1. Goodfellas, a movie following up & coming NYC mobster Henry Hill
  2. The Departed, a movie about the Irish mafia in Boston and their infiltration of the police investigating them
  3. Kundun, the dramatic biopic of the Dalai Lama and his exile from China
  4. Taxi Driver, the story of the violently unhinged NYC cab driver Travis Bickle and his bloody crusade

Did you guess Kundun? I sure hope so, seeing as it’s the title of this article.

Prior to the release of Silence (2016), Kundun was probably the largest shift in tone, style, and subject matter of director Martin Scorsese’s career. Coming on the heels of Casino (1995), the bloody Las Vegas-based mobster flick, Kundun came completely out of left field and took audiences by surprise. Well, the audiences who actually bothered to see it anyway. With an estimated budget of $28 Million but a domestic gross of only $5.5 Million, Kundun is one of Scorsese’s biggest financial failures. It really is unfortunate that this film fared so poorly at the box office and seems unknown to many, because Kundun is a masterpiece and one of Scorsese’s best films.

Dalai Lama
Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (Middle) and the adult Dalai Lama

The 1997 biopic covers the life of Lhamo Dondrub, the Tibetan child who would grow up to be the 14th Dalai Lama of the Buddhist faith. The film begins when Lhamo is just two years old and is first declared to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama; his new name becomes Tenzin Gyatso (The Dalai Lama adopts a ‘religious name’ in a similar manner to the catholic Pope). The film follows Tenzin throughout childhood and adolescence as he studies in the monastery and learns what it means to lead at such a young age. Unlike the leaders in western faiths, the Dalai Lama is not a voluntary or elected position; the new Gyatso has leadership thrust upon them at a very young age, something they must learn to cope with. One of the most fascinating aspects of Kundun is seeing how someone handles being the leader to millions when it’s not only a life they didn’t choose, but also when they don’t even remember their life before.

The film reaches its climax when the Chinese military invades Tibet and forces the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan leadership to sign a treaty that essentially surrenders all of Tibet to become the property China. We also see years later, when the Tibetan people are living under the oppressive Chinese regime and the Dalai Lama is forced to flee to India and live in exile from his home. But don’t worry, just because there aren’t any fast-talking wiseguys or rampaging gunmen doesn’t mean it’s not still a Scorsese picture.


The fast-paced, quick cutaway edits and the long moving shots that Scorsese is so known for are present throughout the film, as well as his top-notch dialogue-heavy scenes. If Scorsese’s name doesn’t convince you, then I have two words for you: Roger Deakins. Even if you aren’t into the story of the Dalai Lama, is there’s one reason you should absolutely watch Kundun it’s the cinematography. The grand, sweeping views of Tibet and the bright spectrum of color are nothing short of breathtaking. Deakins is one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, and Kundun is in the upper-echelon of his work. With a team like Martin Scorsese, Roger Deakins, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker you can be guaranteed that you’re in for a visually stunning film.

Kundun is a beautiful film about life, the pressures of leadership, and the eternal struggle between those who wish for peace and those who wish for power. It is arguably Scorsese’s most underrated film and one that deserves to be appreciated. Oh, and it’s also the film that supposedly got Scorsese banned from entering China so there’s that too.

Final Score: 8/10

Dylan Clauson

A good, good beard boy that studied broadcasting and film at Central Michigan University, where I learned how to pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

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