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Title: Kundun  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: 70th Academy Awards, Philip Glass, Martin Scorsese, 14th Dalai Lama, Kundun film poster.jpg
Collection: 1990S Biographical Films, 1990S Drama Films, 1997 Films, American Drama Films, American Epic Films, American Films, Biographical Films About Religious Leaders, English-Language Films, Epic Films, Film Scores by Philip Glass, Films About Buddhism, Films About Nobel Laureates, Films About Tibet, Films Based on Actual Events, Films Directed by Martin Scorsese, Films Shot in Morocco, Mandarin-Language Films, Screenplays by Melissa Mathison, Studiocanal Films, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan-Language Films, Touchstone Pictures Films
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Theatrical release poster
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Written by Melissa Mathison
Music by Philip Glass
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures (USA)
Release dates
  • December 25, 1997 (1997-12-25)
Running time
134 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $28 million[1]
Box office $5.6 million (domestic)[1]

Kundun is a 1997 epic biographical film written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Martin Scorsese. It is based on the life and writings of the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled political and spiritual leader of Tibet. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, a grandnephew 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.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Reception 4
  • Inaccuracies 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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

The film has a straightforward chronology with events spanning from 1937 to 1959;[2] 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. After a vision by Reting Rinpoche (the regent of Tibet) several lamas disguised as servants discover a promising candidate: a child born to a 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, and 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 is comforted by Reting, who tells him the story of the first Dalai Lama — whom the lamas called "Kundun". As the film progresses, the boy matures in both age and learning. After 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 a traditional part of Imperial China, and express their desire to reincorporate it with the newly formed People's Republic of China. Eventually, despite Tibet's pleas to the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, and India for intervention, Chinese Communist forces invade Tibet. The Chinese are initially helpful, but when the Tibetans resist Communist reorganization and reeducation of their society, the Chinese become oppressive.

Following a series of atrocities suffered by his people, the Dalai Lama resolves to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. While Mao initially expresses his sympathies to the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama, and insists that changes must be made as the Dalai Lama sees fit, relations inevitably deteriorate. 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."

Once the Dalai Lama arrives at his new residence, he unpacks his telescope and steps outside. Erecting it and removing his spectacles, he gazes through it toward the Himalayas-and toward Tibet.

The film concludes with two lines printed on screen:

The Dalai Lama has not yet returned to Tibet. He hopes one day to make the journey.


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


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.[3]

Most of the film was shot at the Atlas Film Studios in Ouarzazate, Morocco; some scenes were filmed at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery in Woodstock, New York.[4][5]


The film (according to Roger Ebert) was "made of episodes, not a plot".[6] Even before the film was released, China's leaders hotly objected to Disney's plans to distribute the film, even to the point of threatening 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.[8][9]

The film did poorly at the box office, taking in less than $6 million in a limited U.S. distribution.[1] 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). The film holds a 76% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 59 reviews, indicating generally positive reviews.[10]

mandalas of sand."[7] Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, saying: "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. ... Once we understand that Kundun will not be a drama involving a plausible human character, we are freed to see the film as it is: an act of devotion, an act even of spiritual desperation, flung into the eyes of 20th century materialism. The film's visuals and music are rich and inspiring, and like a mass by Bach or a Renaissance church painting, it exists as an aid to worship: It wants to enhance, not question."[6] 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."[11]

Barry Norman, chief film critic at the BBC opined that Kundun was "beautifully and intelligently made, far more impressive, for instance, than the recent Seven Years in Tibet".[12] As Kundun was released in the UK four months after its original release Norman was able to probe Scorsese about the film's promotion. Writing about his interview with Scorsese Norman wrote,

Yet it seems to be Scorsese, rather than the studio, who is doing most to promote the film. So I asked him "Did Disney back you up when it came out? Did they really put themselves behind it to try to sell it?" Now Scorsese is a decent and diplomatic man, who likes to be fair to everybody, but eventually he said: "I personally think that, unfortunately, they didn't push the picture." For fear of offending China? "Who knows?" he said. But, perhaps significantly, he also said: "The market China represents is enormous, not just for Disney but many other corporations around the world.[12]


Several minor events in the film do not match the events as described in the Dalai Lama's 1990 autobiography,[13] or as described by Diki Tsering, the Dalai Lama's mother, in her 2000 book Dalai Lama, My Son: a Mother's Story.[14]

  • Early in the film, a monk is sent in disguise as part of an entourage to look for the reincarnation of the 14th 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[13][14]


  1. ^ a b c Kundun from The Numbers
  2. ^ a b December 24, 1997 Review from The New York Times
  3. ^ KundunOverview of from the Turner Classic Movies website
  4. ^ Karma Triyana Dharmachakra - The Monastery
  5. ^ "Young Spiritual Leader Arrives in New York Ready to Teach and Be Taught" from the New York Times 16 May 2008
  6. ^ a b Review by Roger Ebert
  7. ^ a b c Disney's China Policy from Time magazine
  8. ^ "Change of direction for Scorsese".  
  9. ^ "37 Celebrities Banned From Foreign Countries".  
  10. ^ "Kundun Reviews".  
  11. ^ Edelstein, David (1997-12-26). "Holding Their Fire". Slate. Retrieved 2008-09-23. 
  12. ^ a b "Martin Scorsese's KUNDUN conundrum".  
  13. ^ a b c  
  14. ^ a b c Tsering, Diki (2000). Thondup, Khedroob, ed. Dalai Lama, My Son: a Mother's Story. New York:  

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