Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Written by Melissa Mathison
Music by Philip Glass
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Distributed by Touchstone Pictures (USA)
Release date(s) 1997
Running time 134 min
Language English, Tibetan, Mandarin
Budget $28,000,000[1]
Gross revenue $5.68 million (U.S.)[1]

Kundun is a 1997 film written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Martin Scorsese. It is based on the life and writings of the Dalai Lama, the exiled political and spiritual leader of Tibet. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, a grand nephew of the Dalai Lama, stars as the adult Dalai Lama.

"Kundun" (སྐུ་མདུན་ Wylie: Sku-mdun in Tibetan), meaning "presence", is a title by which the Dalai Lama is addressed. Kundun was released only a few months after Seven Years in Tibet, sharing the latter's location and its depiction of the Dalai Lama at several stages of his youth, though Kundun covers a period three times longer.



At the beginning of the film the two-year-old boy (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) at his rural birthplace in Amdo is visited by the searching lamas and undertakes a test to confirm his identity as the reborn Buddha of Compassion.

The film — "made of episodes, not a plot"[2] — has a straightforward chronology with events spanning from 1937 to 1959.;[3] the setting is Tibet, except for brief sequences in China and India. It begins with the search for the 14th mindstream emanation of the Dalai Lama. Following a vision by Reting Rinpoche (the regent of Tibet) several lamas disguised as servants discover the location of a promising candidate: a child born to a poor farming family in the province of Amdo, near the Chinese border.

These and other lamas administer a test to the child in which he must select from various objects the ones that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. The child passes the test; he and his family are brought to Potala Palace in Lhasa, where he will be installed as Dalai Lama when he comes of age.

During the journey, the child becomes homesick and frightened, but he is comforted by Reting, who tells him the story of the first Dalai Lama — whom the lamas referred to as "Kundun". As the film progresses, the boy matures both in age and learning. Following a brief power struggle in which Reting is imprisoned and dies, the Dalai Lama begins taking a more active role in governance and religious leadership.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communists, recently victorious in their revolution, are proclaiming Tibet to be a traditional part of Imperial China and express their desire to re-incorporate it with the newly formed People's Republic of China. Eventually, despite Tibet's pleas to the United Nations and the United States for intervention, Chinese Communist forces invade Tibet. The Chinese are initially helpful, but when the Tibetans resist Communism reorganization and re-education of their society, the Chinese become oppressive in the eyes of many.

Following a series of atrocities suffered by his people, the Dalai Lama resolves to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. During their face-to-face meeting on the final day of the Dalai Lama's visit, Mao makes clear his view that "religion is poison" and that the Tibetans are "poisoned and inferior" because of it. Upon his return to Tibet, the Dalai Lama learns of more horrors perpetrated against his people, who have by now repudiated their treaty with China and begun guerrilla action against the Chinese. After the Chinese make clear their intention to kill him, the Dalai Lama is convinced by his family and his Lord Chamberlain to flee to India.

After consulting the oracle about the proper escape route, the Dalai Lama and his staff put on disguises and slip out of Lhasa under cover of darkness. During an arduous journey, throughout which they are pursued by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama becomes very ill and experiences several visions of the past and future. The group eventually makes it to a small mountain pass on the Indian border. As the Dalai Lama walks to the guard post, an Indian guard approaches him, salutes, and inquires: "May I ask, are you the Lord Buddha?" The Dalai Lama replies with the film's final line: "I think that I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself."


The project began when screenwriter Melissa Mathison, whose best-known work was E.T., met with the Dalai Lama and asked him if she could write about his life. According to Turner Classic Movies, "he gave her his blessing and his time, sitting for interviews that became the basis of her script"; it was Mathison's suggestion that Scorsese be brought in as director.[4]

The majority of the film was shot at the Atlas Film Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco; some of the scenes were also filmed at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery in Woodstock, New York.[5][6]



The young Dalai Lama portrayed in the film.


The Dalai Lama as a young man.

Actor Role
Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong Dalai Lama (Adult)
Gyurme Tethong Dalai Lama (Age 12)
Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin Dalai Lama (Age 5)
Tenzin Yeshi Paichang Dalai Lama (Age 2)
Tencho Gyalpo Dalai Lama's mother
Tenzin Topjar Lobsang (age 5 to 10)
Tsewang Migyur Khangsar Dalai Lama's father
Tenzin Lodoe Takster
Geshi Yeshi Gyatso Lama of Sera
Losang Gyatso The Messenger (as Lobsang Gyatso)
Sonam Phuntsok Reting Rinpoche
Gyatso Lukhang Lord Chamberlain
Lobsang Samten Master of the Kitchen
Jigme Tsarong Taktra Rinpoche (as Tsewang Jigme Tsarong)
Tenzin Trinley Ling Rinpoche
Robert Lin Chairman Mao Zedong
Jurme Wangda Prime Minister Lukhangwa


Even before the film was released China's leaders "hotly objected to Disney's plans to distribute" the film, even to the point of "making threatening noises about Disney's future access to China as a market."[7] Disney's steadfastness stood in stark contrast to Universal Pictures, which had earlier "turned down the chance to distribute Kundun for fear of upsetting the Chinese."[7] Scorsese, Mathison, and several other members of the production were banned by the Chinese government from ever entering China as a result of making the film.

The film did poorly at the box office, taking in less than $6 million in a limited U.S. distribution.[1]

Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film "emotionally remote" but praises its look and its score:[3]

The movie is a triumph for the cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has given it the look of an illuminated manuscript. As its imagery becomes more surreal and mystically abstract, Mr. Glass's ethereal electronic score, which suggests a Himalyan music of the spheres, gathers force and energy and the music and pictures achieve a sublime synergy.

Richard Corliss praised the cinematography and score as well:[7]

Aided by Roger Deakins' pristine camera work and the euphoric drone of Philip Glass's score, Scorsese devises a poem of textures and silences. Visions, nightmares and history blend in a tapestry as subtle as the Tibetans' gorgeous mandalas of sand.

Roger Ebert said:[2]

There is rarely the sense that a living, breathing and (dare I say?) fallible human inhabits the body of the Dalai Lama. Unlike Scorsese's portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is not a man striving for perfection, but perfection in the shape of a man.

David Edelstein called the movie a hagiography whose "music ties together all the pretty pictures, gives the narrative some momentum, and helps to induce a kind of alert detachment, so that you're neither especially interested nor especially bored."[8]

Kundun was nominated for four Academy Awards: for Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, art direction and Francesca Lo Schiavo, set decoration), Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Costume Design, and Original Score (Philip Glass).


Several minor events in the film do not match the events as described in the Dalai Lama's 1990 autobiography,[9] or as described by Diki Tsering, the Dalai Lama's mother, in her 2000 book Dalai Lama, My Son: a Mother's Story.[10]

  • Early in the film, a monk is sent in disguise as part of an entourage to look for the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. The two-year-old Dalai Lama first meets him when the monk enters the house dressed as a servant. There are differing accounts of their first meeting. In the Dalai Lama's memoirs, Freedom in Exile, he says he came outside to greet the disguised lama.[9] His mother says two monks came and set canes (one belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama) against the side of the house, and her son picked the correct cane up and asked the monk (not in disguise) why it was taken from him.[10] Either way, the first encounter was not in the house.
  • In 1941, the Regent Reting Rinpoche was deposed and second Regent, Taktra Rinpoche, was selected by the Dalai Lama. In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama recalls that he was approached and asked to make a decision about who would replace Reting and chose Taktra, the main candidate. In the movie, the decision is spontaneous and to Taktra's surprise.
  • In September 1954, the Dalai Lama goes to Beijing and meets Mao Zedong. In the film they meet alone, but according to the Dalai Lama's memoirs, his mother's memoirs, and photographic evidence, the 10th Panchen Lama was also present.[9][10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kundun from The Numbers
  2. 2.0 2.1 Review by Roger Ebert
  3. 3.0 3.1 December 24, 1997 Review from The New York Times
  4. Overview of Kundun from the Turner Classic Movies website
  5. Karma Triyana Dharmachakra - The Monastery
  6. "Young Spiritual Leader Arrives in New York Ready to Teach and Be Taught" from the New York Times 16 May 2008
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Disney's China Policy from Time magazine
  8. Edelstein, David (1997-12-26). "Holding Their Fire". Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/3241. Retrieved 2008-09-23. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Freedom in Exile: the Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 1990. ISBN 0-06-039116-2. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Tsering, Diki; Thondup, Khedroob (editor) (2000). Dalai Lama, My Son: a Mother's Story. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-88905-9. 

External links

  • Kundun at the Internet Movie Database
  • Kundun Buddhist viewpoints at dharmaflix.com

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