From the opening to the closing credits, *Kundun* is a film of unusual visual richness, replete with metaphoric detail, beautiful compositions, lush color and expressive light. It is a painterly rendering of the early life of the 14th Dalai Lama, sparing in narrative detail, told largely through potently symbolic imagery.
Future Dalai Lama Kundun is found in a remote village on the Tibet-China border, when the toddler (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) successfully identifies his possessions from a previous incarnation as the 13th Dalai Lama. In Lhasa, the young boy's childhood preoccupations are tempered only slightly by the efforts of the monks to educate him in preparation for the day that he will rule Tibet. Kundun's progress from boyhood to enthronement as spiritual and political ruler of Tibet reveals both the ordinary and the remarkable about him, as well as the tangible humanity of a young man in the unique position of being revered as a god. The presence of a hostile China haunts the young Dalai Lama's life -- though a modern boy by Tibetan standards, he cannot fully comprehend the cynical political and military circumstances that will converge to eventually force him into exile.
A movie that covers nearly 20 years of a life must do it rather quickly -- *Kundun* accomplishes the task not by loading the narrative with exposition, detail and dialogue, but by distilling the history down to a bare bones tale, then fleshing it out with rich pageantry, emblematic landscape and luminous, trance-like visions. At first blush, this unconventional narrative seems too sparse, empty of ideas and structure, relying too heavily on aesthetically pleasing sights and sounds. As the film progresses, however, it becomes more and more clear that director Martin Scorsese's ingenious method effectively reveals much that is impossible to convey in a conventional narrative film, while allowing much that is mysterious to remain so. The uncommon story structure allows *Kundun* to linger at moments of great internal drama in the Dalai Lama's life, such as his exodus to exile in India, that were highly significant events for both the leader and his nation, but are, from a movie standpoint, relatively uneventful and lacking in external drama (i.e. no car chases through the Himalayas). Tibetan culture, politics and spirituality, the intellectual and religious progress of young Kundun, his unique ethical conflict as the human embodiment of the soul of a nation, and the philosophical underpinnings, and practical flexibility, of Tibetan Buddhism are all lucidly explored in *Kundun* (the KTD monastery in Woodstock was one of several to provide technical assistance to the filmmakers, as did the Dalai Lama himself).
Nearly as remarkable as the visual clarity of the film is the cast, composed almost entirely of Tibetans (excepting Chinese characters, such as Robert Lin's menacing, effete Chairman Mao), many of whom are familial relations of the Dalai Lama, or the characters they play. There is not a white face to be seen in Kundun, which is a real break with a movie tradition that tends to temper unfamiliar ideas with faces and facial features familiar to Western eyes. If you believed the very different version of this story told in *Seven Years In Tibet*, it might come as a surprise that there are actual Tibetans living in Tibet. That movie, told from the perspective of then-Nazi sympathizer Heinrich Harrer, suggested that Harrer, an Austrian, was a central, important figure in the Dalai Lama's life, and a prominent personality in Lhasa -- Harrer is entirely absent from this account, which instead emphasizes, respectfully, the Tibetan people and their culture and traditions, mysterious and occasionally astonishing though they be.
The performances in *Kundun* are simple but revealing, relying more on visual expressiveness than dialogue. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong's performance as the adult Dalai Lama limns the range of characteristics -- naivete, compassion, intelligence, idealism -- that, in the face of Tibet's crisis of sovereignty, contribute to a philosophical and personal dilemma for the man who, unique among world leaders, is so inseparable from his country that he must, paradoxically, leave it in order to save it. Tencho Gyalpo is striking as the Dalai Lama's mother (the actress is the actual granddaughter of her character); also exceptional as Kundun's teachers and advisors are Tsewang Jigme Tsarong (as Taktra Rinpoche), and Gyatso Lukhang (as the Lord Chamberlain).
The most striking feature of Scorsese's film is the way that it uses the visual world to represent the insubstantial and spiritual world of Tibetan Buddhism. The very tension present in the film itself, as it weaves together impressionistic visions borrowed from the corporeal world to evoke what is ineffable, reflect the tensions between the spiritual and political, the modern and traditional, the internal and external, that are present in unique ways in the life of the 14th Dalai Lama.