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Film / Kundun

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Indian Soldier: May I ask, are you the Lord Buddha?
The Dalai Lama: I think that I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.

Kundun is a 1997 Epic Movie written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Martin Scorsese, with a score by Philip Glass. It is a Biopic of the youth and early career of Tenzin Gyatso who would become the 14th Dalai Lama and The Leader and spokesman for the Tibetan Government-In-Exile. Various actors play the Dalai Lama in various ages with the adult version played by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, the grand-nephew of the current Dalai Lama. Several non-professional Tibetans play key roles in the film, most of which was shot in Morocco.

The story follows "Kundun" (the presence) from his youth, as the son of a small peasant family in the outskirts of Tibet. Little Tenzin Gyatso passes the test of the Lamasery and the Regent Reting Rinpoche and eventually gets installed at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. His time as the Dalai Lama takes place in the middle of the 20th Century when the violence of World War II and the nationalistic convulsions in China and India makes the Tibetans insecure. The Dalai Lama, impressed by Western ideas and sympathetic to reforms, starts to implement changes in Tibet, on the onset of the encroachment of China into Tibetan territory.

The film was produced by Touchstone Pictures (i.e Disney incognito) but was controversial for its subject matter. The film was criticized and banned by the Chinese government as well as the filmmakers behind the production.


  • Accent Adaptation: It stars Tibetan exiles who speak English, and aside from some non-professionals who speak Tibetan and the Buddhist shlokas and mantras in traditional languge, the film is done entirely in English.
  • Affably Evil:
    • Mao Zedong comes across as quite friendly and charming during the Dalai Lama's diplomatic visit to Beijing. It's all an act however.
    • Many of his generals are surprisingly cordial toward the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, even while suppressing both.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • The propaganda radio audition (apparently by Chinese) portrays Tibet as an imperialist stronghold under the feudal rule of the tyrant Dalai Lama.
    • As part of his return trip from Pekin, the Dalai Lama tours through Tibet. He's allowed to interact with an old woman living on a collective farm made out of his childhood home. When asked if she's happy, she can barely recite a memorised line about being happy under Chairman Mao's fatherly care, all while bursting into tears in the Dalai Lama's arms.
  • Catapult Nightmare: The famous "field of the dead monks" Nightmare Sequence concludes with the Dalai Lama springing up from his bed, looking around and being disoriented by his surroundings, expecting to see bodies everywhere.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Zig-Zagged. On one hand, a four-year-old boy is formally recognised as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and made the spiritual leader of the country. On the other, he is but a child who has to be trained into that role first, so a regency is in actual power until he's an adult man. But as far as official conduct goes, it's the little boy that runs all affairs, or they are done in his name until he's at least a teenager.
  • Chummy Commies: What the Dalai Lama expects from the Chinese Communist Party since he's sympathetic to their egalitarian ideology.
  • Coming of Age Story: The whole point of the first half of the story, as the Dalai Lama slowly grows up from being recognised as a reincarnation into being the man he's believed to be. But particularly, when the Reting Rinpoche tries to stage a revolt and return to regent position, pre-teen Tenzin Gyatso learns about a whole lot of bad things (like armed monks or that his own palace has a dungeon packed with prisoners) that shatter the Gilded Cage he was kept in so far.
  • Corrupt Politician:
    • The Reting Rinpoche, the Regent who finds the young Dalai Lama, is held to be one though he is nothing but kind and affable to the young Tenzin.
    • Mao himself is a manipulative, two-faced conqueror who uses Marxist phrases to justify land grabbing when the Dalai Lama sought peaceful alliance.
  • Culture Clash: When general Zhang Jingwu presents the Seventeen Point Agreement, he passes it to Dalai Lama directly, treating him as an equal partner, only for the Lord Chamberlain to extend his hand for the scroll. The general is clearly ashamed of the faux-pas he made. He then proceeds to have a "conversation" with the Dalai Lama by giving various lines, to which he's not replied to at all due to the court protocol, further disturbing him by the increasingly awkward situation. However, this is not portrayed as a funny situation and serves to portray the huge divide between the two countries.
  • Decoy Leader: During the search for Dalai Lama's reincarnation, the actual monk is dressed up as a servant, to further lessen the projection on possible reincarnation - or, more importantly, the parents.
  • Dirty Commies: Played with. The Dalai Lama is initially quite sympathetic to communism, identifying with its anti-imperialist ideology and compassionate to the suffering of the Chinese people during World War II. He initially feels that Tibet could have friendly relations with the Chinese communists but Mao feels no desire to treat Tibet as equals since they are strong and Tibet is weak.
  • Dueling Movies: With Brad Pitt's Seven Years in Tibet, which also came out in 1997. Lost the duel pretty hard upon release, even if Seven Years in Tibet barely avoided bombing itself. And keeps losing it to this day, as Disney is doing its very best to pretend the film doesn't exist, which affects accessability to it, all while Seven... still gets re-runs in TV, has few DVD releses and is readily available on streaming platforms.
  • End of an Age: The end of classic Tibetan culture that had been isolated for so long and had continued well into the middle of the 20th Century. The Dalai Lama laments that it ended just when he was bringing Tibet into a new age.
  • Epic Movie: A biopic tracking the life of the 14th Dalai Lama from being first discovered as a reincarnation till his escape from Tibet as an adult man, with all the location shots, elaborate sets and countless extras needed to make it happen. Its production values were impressive enough to get a slew of Academy Award nominations in related fields.
  • The Exile: The Dalai Lama finally becomes this at the end. He leaves hoping that one day he will return:
    Dalai Lama: "I see a safe journey. I see a safe return."
  • Foregone Conclusion: For once, used effectively for a dramatic effect. A great deal of real-life prophecies get cranked up and even slightly altered, due to the film being made in 1997 and thus having extra hindsight over the events from the 1940s and 50s (and everything that followed beyond the timeframe of the story). And of course, Communist China will take over Tibet, no matter how much the Tibetans will try to avoid that.
  • Gilded Cage: How Potala Palace is potrayed. While it is undeniably an impressive place and he's provided for, young Tenzin Gyatso can't really leave it and lives a very controlled life, even for an adept monk. Similarly, his parents, while provided with great material wealth, are kept inside their new residence and its nearest surroundings.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • Allegedly, the Reting Rinpoche was beaten to death in prison, but none of this is shown on screen.
    • The communist invasion of Tibet wasn't pretty - the film just skips over it. Even the Nightmare Sequences to represent it are heavily stylised to remove any actual violence and gore from them.
    • When Dalai Lama is informed about Chinese atrocities against his countrymen, he has an Imagine Spot of a young boy being forced to shoot his parents. It's filmed in such a way that you guess the outcome, rather than really seeing any of it.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: After one of many moments of self-doubt, the Dalai Lama asks one of his aides
    Do you ever think Reting found the right boy?
  • Historical Domain Character: In addition to the 14th Dalai Lama, there is Regent Reting Rinpoche, Ling Rinpoche and of course Mao Zedong in a brief cameo.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • Played straight in regards to the Dalai Lama but averted with regards to Tibetan culture in general. The film was made with the support of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-In-Exile, however the film makes it clear that Tibet before the arrival of the Chinese was a theocratic nation, was subject to corruption and was desperately in need of reforms. Scorsese said that he was specifically interested in deconstructing the idealized Shangri-La stereotype Westerners have foisted on Tibet since Lost Horizon. The film also notably skips the part of Tibetan history when Dalai Lama openly collaborated with Chinese authorities and being very supportive to their reforms.
    • General Zhang Jingwu is portrayed as a level-headed and compassionate man, if still doing Mao's biddings. Ironically, while Seven Years in Tibet is full of artistic licenses and political caricatures, Zhang's portrayal there as a heavy-handed brute with open contempt toward Tibet and Tibetans was spot-on.
  • I Have Many Names: Born Lhamo Thondup, ordained as Tenzin Gyatsonote , recognised as the 14th Dalai Lama and Kundun.
  • Internal Reformist: What Tenzin Gyatso hopes to be as the Dalai Lama. As a young man he is shocked to see prisoners chained at the ankles and by the fact that "Monks have guns". Upon taking power, he announces several reforms and releases all prisoners.
  • Just a Kid: While recognised as a reincarnation, the spiritual leader and the future political head of the country, the young Dalai Lama is just that - a child. But rather than out of malice, as a pre-teen he's under a regency for pragmatic reasons, as he's still in the formative process anyway.
  • Just a Stupid Accent: As opposed to the amateurs in the cast, who just speak normally, professional actors who play Chinese characters speak heavily (Chinese) accented English.
  • Kiddie Kid: Inverted. As a little child, Dalai Lama would obviously rather play and goof around. Instead, he's put through laborious training and heavily supervised, often treated like an adult or at least few years older than he really is.
  • Lonely at the Top: What's more lonely than being declared the reincarnation of a spiritual leader of a country at the age of four and locked away from your own family? As the little boy is marched into the Potala Palace, all he's doing is looking back at his mother, separated from her for years.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Averted. The Dalai Lama learns several languages and gets an education in Western Culture and is interested in modern technology like cars, radios, photographs and movies, however he is raised within a traditional milieu of the Potala Palace at Lhasa.
  • Match Cut: During the lecture on the impending trouble from the advancing Chinese, the shot transits from the statue of Buddha to the sitting Dalai Lama, matching their faces.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • The film takes this stance towards Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. It's never made clear if the Dalai Lama reincarnates into a young boy, or a young boy seems to be just the right kind of candidate who could be raised into becoming the Dalai Lama. The film's final lines, excerpted above, suggests that the Dalai Lama is merely a reflection of what people want to believe.
    • During the final act, the oracle points the path to cross the border, right next to a PLA military camp... and then the camp is moved right when preparations for escape are finished.
  • The Movie Buff: The young Dalai Lama spends a lot of time in movie theaters and enjoys watching movies like early Georges Méliès shorts and Laurence Olivier's Henry V. Definite Author Appeal for Scorsese.
  • Mushroom Samba: The Dalai Lama has very vivid dreams and visions. One sequence at the end showing the Lama surrounded by piles of dead monks was inspired by a real nightmare shared by Tenzin Gyatso.
  • Nepotism: Played with. Family ties to the 14th Dalai Lama become a handy springboard to an easier life, but most of it is glossed over and, more importantly, never abused by anyone.
  • Nightmare Sequence: The Dalai Lama gets few, either with people close to him are dying or, which terrifies him, innocents are killed for resisting the Chinese. A bit of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane follows, as at least some of those nightmares are interpreted in-universe as prophetic visions.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore:
    Dalai Lama: We've managed Chinese for many years.
    Lord Chamberlain: Those are not the Chinese we known, holiness. Those are communists.
  • Opening Scroll: The film opens with a relatively short scroll that explains the basic premise of searching for Reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
  • P.O.V. Cam: There are many shots from Dalai Lama's perspective, especially when he's just a child and has to look up at everyone.
  • Rags to Riches: Not the young Lhamo Thondup (since he is living the humble life of a monk), but his family gets elevated from a rather humble position to that of oppulence and wealth.
  • Reincarnation: The young Tenzin Gyatso is regarded by the Lamas who attend him to be one for his predecessors. They identify him by use of effects belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, which the young Tenzin immediately recognizes in a manner that is familiar to the monks. Indeed, this is the real procedure used to select the Dalai Lama, along with the reasoning behind it. There are also other high-ranking characters, addressed by their reincarnation title, rather than real or even ordained name.
  • Repeat Cut: When they are introduced to each other for the first time, the Lord Chamberlain of the court bows down three times, each shown from a different angle.
  • Rule of Symbolism: And some of them are less subtle than others:
    • Vultures are graphically tearing apart the body of Dalai Lama's late father, while a letter of Chinese (imperialistic) demands is read in a voice-over.
    • The telescope - Dalai Lama can only observe things from a distance, but never interact with them directly, and ultimately is watching Tibet from far away.
    • Polished, Western shoes, as a sign of modernity and the removal of tradition.
  • Scenery Porn: Scorsese could not shoot the film in Tibet but the film is nonetheless gorgeous in its recreation of mandalas, rituals, ideograms and its use of the Moroccan landscape.
  • Schmuck Bait: The blatant set-up to capture the Dalai Lama by the Chinese, when he's supposed to go alone to a dance recital. Nobody's fooled.
  • Secret Test of Character: The standard way of finding the reincarnation in accordance with Tibetan Buddhism: after preliminary search and observation, the monks prop up an entire set of objects, both decoys and actual things of the person they are searching for. It takes picking and collecting all of the real artifacts by a child playing with them and nothing else.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The scene where the Lamas arrive to the young Tenzin's house with them wearing hats on horses is one for several Westerns.
    • Our first glimpse of Mao, at a party meeting in front of a large portrait is one for Citizen Kane.
  • Shown Their Work: While some liberties were still taken (especially when it comes to historical events), the filmmakers obviously did a lot of extra research and consultations regarding both Tibet of the time period and, more importantly, the inner workings of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Many tiny details are presented as a mere background, which could be easily skipped for easier work on the film.
  • Soundtrack and Lyrical Dissonance: The uplifting, cheerful revolutionary songs sung by a choir of Chinese children... about tearing down the feudal tyrants, while the dour, beaten-down Tibetan delegation enters Beijing.
  • The Stoic: Enforced. Dalai Lama is deliberately and intentionally raised to be one (not to mention his duties as a monk), but it wasn't always the case for him, and he was pretty livid as a child.
  • A Storm Is Coming: A great deal of the story focuses on the impending Chinese threat, even during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the reassumption of the Chinese Civil War after that. The Tibetans feel threatened by whoever will reign supreme over China.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Before their artillery practice, the Chinese deliver the following message to the Potala Palace:
    If the Dalai Lama and a few trusted officers can stay within the inner walls and inform General Tan exactly which building you will occupy, we certainly intend this building not be damaged.
  • The Theocracy: Tibet is one, with the Dalai Lama and his court being the political and spiritual head of the nation. The Dalai Lama wants to modernize Tibet and split the government, with separation of church and state.
  • Time Lapse: Of making a sand mandala.
  • Time Skip: Numerous, as the film keeps track of the life of Lhamo Thondup from the age of 2, until he flees Tibet as Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, at the age of 24.
  • Too Important to Walk: The young Dalai Lama is transported in an elaborate palankin, either carried by two mules or by people, on his way to Lhasa.
  • Truth in Television: That scene where Mao looms over the Dalai Lama, looking like a cheap "strongman intimidating a weakling" shot? Mao was famously tall for a Chinaman, especially of that era, at 180cm (six feet) and he did use it to dwarf the barely-adult Dalai Lama.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: In stark contrast to its dueling mate, Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun is almost allergic to exposition beyond the Opening Scroll. Do you have anything beyond cursory knowledge of Tibetan history? How about the principles of the Gelug school of Buddhism? No? Tough luck, because the movie won't explain you anything. This even extends to such trivialities as never covering who-is-who. The film can be at times downright incomprehensible without having pre-existing knowledge on the matters that make its plot and background - not helped by frequent and unannounced Time Skips.
  • Warrior Monk: "Monks have guns" as the young Dalai Lama notes at one point with alarm. His advisers note that they have to maintain force of arms to govern the state.
  • Wham Line: From Mao himself, "Religion is poison...the opium of the people." The moment when the Dalai Lama realizes that the Chinese will take over Tibet regardless of any friendly overtures of peace on his part
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: By the time he's twelve, the Dalai Lama acts and behaves like a stable, well-adjusted adult, making tough political and cultural decisions with the grace of a seasoned, if a bit naive statesman.