“Kundun” is as beautiful as a painting. And sitting through it is as interesting as it would be to watch that painting dry.
You will read that Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” is “placid” and “serene” and “languid,” but - I’m warning you - all of these words are Criticspeak for “boring as heck.” And boring it is - one placidly, serenely, languidly beautiful image after another with no characters or story to make you care.
Kundun is a term of affectionate respect for the spiritual leader of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama. At the end of the movie, a title card informs us that “Kundun” was personally approved by the Dalai Lama, a clue to where the movie went wrong. Whether you’re making a movie about a saint or a sinner, you need a little distance.
Otherwise, you end up making a fascinating person seem dull. “Kundun” traces the life of the 14th Dalai Lama from his “discovery” at the age of 5 to the Chinese invasion which forced him to flee Tibet. But even as I write that sentence, it feels dishonest, because words like “flee” and “invasion” suggest passion and action, neither of which “Kundun” has.
It doesn’t even have Kundun himself. We have no idea what the Dalai Lama thinks about having been a normal kid who suddenly became the spiritual leader of a nation, or about what his relationships were like with his family, or if he misses having a private life, or likes butter on his popcorn.
When the movie’s over, you haven’t learned anything about Buddhism or the Dalai Lama. In fact, the only memorable person in the movie is Mao Tse Tung (Robert Lin), who meets with the Dalai Lama. Mao is supposed to be like a fox in a henhouse during the meeting, but the scene is most notable because Lin’s weirdly broad, fey performance makes Mao seem less like a fox and more like RuPaul.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Kundun” Location: Lincoln Heights Cinema Art Credits: Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Tencho Gyalpo, Gyatso Pukhang Running time: 2:15 Rating: PG-13