A portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama, from the discovery that he is the incarnation of Tibet's spiritual leader to his eventual exile following his belief in non-violent resistance to Communist China's invasion of his country.
You have to marvel at Martin Scorsese's balls-out bravery; forsaking his well trod mean streets for mountains, he has broached the childhood of the 14th Dalai Lama, peppered the cast with non professional actors, then lensed the proceedings in an experimental, unconventional style.
Beginning in 1937, Kundun (which translates as "Oceans Of Wisdom") opens on a two-year-old boy who, when discovered by a group of monks on a rural Tibetan farm, is deemed to be the new Dalai Lama - the latest reincarnation of the Buddha Of Compassion. From here, the film chronicles the boy's training as a religious leader, a role increasingly overshadowed by the spectre of communist China encroaching on Tibetan frontiers. Thus, the man of peace is forced to negotiate with the arbiters of violence, including Chairman Mao - to retain the political and spiritual autonomy of his homeland.
Even if Kundun lacks the commitment and penetration set by his own high standards, much of Scorsese's stock-in-trade is still present; impeccable performances (Tsarong as the 18-year-old Lama effortlessly embodying sedate wisdom), the evocation of private milieus, and a fascination with rite and ritual. Indeed, Scorsese's documentary style accumulation of exotic detail occasionally serves to distance rather than illuminate the sacred world.
Kundun soars with directorial virtousity: eschewing the talkiness and grandiose stodginess of the standard historical biopic, the movie is propelled via Philip Glass' exhilarating score and a stream of richly textured powerful images that mesmerise with their haunting beauty. The net result is difficult and demanding viewing yet strangely thrilling.