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Festivale online magazine, June, 1998
Kundun movie review

The true story of the Dalai Lama, told through his eyes, an account of the Dalai Lama's early life, from childhood through the Chinese invasion of Tibet and his journey into exile. In 1937, a two-and-a-half year old boy, Tenzin Gyatso, from a simple family in Tibet was recognised as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, and destined to become the spiritual and political leader of his people.

There has been a raised Hollywood awareness of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in recent years. There was Seven Years In Tibet, which received mixed reviews, and more recently Richard Gere's Red Square which received unfavourable reviews. Kundun was a project that could have failed in so many ways, like its predecessors, but not only does it avoid all the pitfalls of pretentiousness and preaching, it also succeeds in being a moving, involving account of the Dalai Lama's life.

Movie Poster, Kundun, Festivale film review

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Being a film about such a contentious issue, it can't help being propaganda on one level. Essentially however, it's a simple story, told gently and with subtlety. There are no monsters, although there are monstrous acts committed. There are no saints, although there are those striving to be good. The grand sweep of 20th Century history is explored on the personal level.

I found it interesting that there is no overt attempt at promoting the mysticism of Tibetan Bhuddism. On the whole, events can be interpreted as mystical or mundanely coincidental - the real issue is the Tibetans' belief that little Tenzin Gyatso is the reincarnated Dalai Lama, and that whatever the truth, he is their spiritual leader. His whole life from that point is aimed at training him for his symbolic and religious position in Tibet.

Special mention must be made of the performers, most of whom are Tibetans living in exile in India, the United States and Canada. Their performances are lovely and their characters utterly believable, particularly those of the four boys who play the Dalai Lama at different stages of his life (from 2 to 18). They capture humour and playfulness along with thoughtfulness and later the Dalai Lama's struggle to decide how best to protect his people. None of these boys have acted before, and indeed most of the Tibetan cast come from other professions - there are teachers, restauranteurs, art directors, health care workers, monks and members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile in the credits - as well as several members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

Kundun is also a beautiful looking film. The cinematography captures the rugged, stunning backdrop of Tibet (actually Morocco masquerading as Tibet) as elegantly as it does the cloistered intimacies of monastery chambers, all recreated in detail for this film.

It could have been a grand and outraged demand for attention, but Kundun is, in the end, a true story told truthfully, with beauty and humour as well as horror. It was very nearly not released in Australia due to the controversy it aroused in relations with China. See it, and soon, if not for the politics of Tibet, then because it is a stunning film.

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Just the facts:

Title: Kundun (199)
Written by: Melissa Mathison
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Produced by: Barbara De Fina, Laura Fattori, Melissa Mathison
Edited by:
Director of Photography:

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Festivale Online Magazine
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ISSN 1328-8008
Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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: Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia : copyright © Festivale 1998 All rights reserved
Filed: 20-May-1998 : Last updated: 28-May-1998 : Last tested: 3-Jul-2014: Last Compiled: 3-Jul-2014
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