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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 (owned by Disney) but was controversial for its subject matter. The film was criticized and banned by the Chinese government as well as the film-makers behind the production.


  • Accent Adaptation: It stars Tibetan exiles who speak Surprisingly Good 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.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: He becomes the Dalai Lama as a young man and takes over from his regents as a teenager.
  • Chummy Commies: What the Dalai Lama expects from the Chinese Communist Party since he's sympathetic to their egalitarian ideology.
  • Corrupt Politician:
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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