Tuesday 1 April 2008

Kundun - A Film Criticism

Title: Kundun
Year: 1997

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Melissa Mathison
Studio: De Fina-Cappa

Film Stock:
Color (Technicolor)

Run Time: 134 min.

The film Kunden presents an idealized vision of Tibetan Buddhism and in doing so it distorts that religion and romanticizes the country, the Dalai Lama and the religion. From the article by Eve Mullen we will examine their arguments for this view. Both of these authors are critical of the movie and the ways in which they present Tibetan Buddhism. European and now North American society have often had a fascination with the Orient and has a long and not so distinguished history. The East has been
romanticized in fiction, art and popular culture going back a few centuries now. But when something gets placed upon a pedestal in such a fashion, either Orientalism or as it is sometimes referred to, Occidentalism, it leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation, either through false aggrandizement or through racism and its errors.

Kundun presents the story of the current Dalai Lama's life and his exile from Tibet after Chinese occupation. However it does so through very rosy glasses especially for Scorsese whose works are usually so critical and cynical. Scorsese and his film are described by Mullen this way: "Scorsese's film is, uncharacteristically for Scorsese, respectful of the religious and political institutions it depicts." She then goes on to further describe this work and its director saying: "The most ironic and pessimistic of
directors has succumbed to the fantasy of utopian Tibet and her perfect leader. He even depicts the rats in the Potala as cute, even though the Dalai Lama remembered them as frightening in his autobiography on which the original Kundun script was based." Mullen has described Orientalism as "Western distortions, purposeful or not, or Eastern traditions and culture, distortions which ultimately can be patronizing or damaging to the studied cultures." She goes on to state that this has been debunked for the most part in the field of religious studies, but especially for Tibet, it is reemerging in popular film, and culture. Such stars as Harrison Ford and Richard Gere are lending time, money and their 'talents' to the cause of Tibet. Both of these men are active politically and socially, lobbying for the rights of Tibet and the Tibetan people.

Tibet has indeed been romanticized by the West, and in doing so, what Tibet was, and what it is has been, is lost in the western presentation of what some like Scorsese, Ford and Gere would like it to be, and maybe even really believe it to be. Tibet is represented as a country and a people that need to be rescued, and we must do all we can to do so. The screen shot of the Dalai Lama praying a blessing over his country as he is escaping the Chinese is particularly poignant. He could almost be a Roman Priest praying over his people. That is not the Dalai Lama, though he returns shortly after this to playing with his telescope.

This film does present religious material, and is a representation of a religious leader's life, but it does so through such distorted lenses that it loses its credibility. Thus, the message to help Tibet becomes corrupted.


  1. Mullen, Eve L. Oriental Commercializations 1998 p.3
  2. IBID p.4
  3. IBID p.2
  4. http://www.rushprnews.com
  5. http://www.gerefoundation.org


Mullen, Eve L.
Oriental Commercializations:
Tibetan Buddhism in American Popular Film
Journal of Religion and Film Vol 2 No 2 Oct 1998

Lopez, Jr. Donald
New Age Orientalism: The Case of Tibet
Tricycle: The Buddhist Review Spring 1994


(First Written for RS266 Religion in Popular Film Fall 2007.)

No comments: