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Kundun film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Scorsese
Written byMelissa Mathison
Produced byBarbara De Fina
  • Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong
  • Gyurme Tethong
  • Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin
  • Tenzin Yeshi Paichang
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Music byPhilip Glass
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures Distribution
Release date
  • December 25, 1997 (1997-12-25) (United States)
Running time
134 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$28 million[2]
Box office$5.7 million[2]

Kundun is a 1997 American epic biographical film written by Melissa Mathison and directed by Martin Scorsese. It is based on the life and writings of Tenzin Gyatso, 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, while Tencho Gyalpo, a niece of the Dalai Lama, appears as the Dalai Lama's mother.

"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. It is the final film to be released before Melissa Mathison's death in 2015, although her final project, The BFG, was released posthumously.


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 "Bodhisattva".

The film has a linear 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. 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 publicly 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 Nechung 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 two personal visions, first that their trip to India will be propitious and that, similarly, their eventual return to Tibet will also be propitious. 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: "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 words shimmer into a dissolve upon the black screen as the credits begin.


The Dalai Lama as portrayed in the film as a young man.
The young Dalai Lama as portrayed in the film.


The project began when screenwriter Melissa Mathison met with the Dalai Lama and asked him if she could write about his life. He gave her his blessing and his time, sitting for interviews that became the basis of her script. Mathison later suggested that Scorsese be brought in as director.[4]

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.[5][6]


All tracks were composed by Philip Glass. Music was conducted by Michael Riesman. Music was produced by Kurt Munkacsi. The Executive Music Producer was Jim Keller.

Track listing[edit]

  1. "Sand Mandala" – 4:04
  2. "Northern Tibet" - 3:21
  3. "Dark Kitchen" - 1:32
  4. "Choosing" - 2:13
  5. "Reting's Eyes" - 2:18
  6. "Potala" - 1:29
  7. "Lord Chamberlain" - 2:43
  8. "Norbu Plays" - 2:12
  9. "Norbulingka" - 2:17
  10. "Chinese Invade" - 7:05
  11. "Fish" - 2:10
  12. "Distraught" - 2:59
  13. "Thirteenth Dalai Lama" - 3:23
  14. "Move to Dungkar" - 5:04
  15. "Projector" - 2:04
  16. "Lhasa at Night" - 1:58
  17. "Escape to India" - 10:05


Chart (1998) Peak
Australian Albums (ARIA Charts)[7] 83


Before the film was released, China's leaders hotly objected to Disney's plans to distribute the film, including to the point of threatening Disney's future access to China as a market.[8] 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."[8] 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.[9][10] China retaliated by banning Disney films and pulling Disney television cartoons.[11]

Disney then caved and apologized in 1998 for releasing the film and began to "undo the damage", eventually leading to a deal to open Shanghai Disneyland by 2016.[12] Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner has apologized for offending Chinese sensitivities, calling the film "a stupid mistake." He went on to say, "The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening."[13]

As of 2021, the movie is unavailable on US streaming platforms and can only be watched on DVD in that country. The film is, however, available on DVD and on streaming platforms elsewhere.[citation needed]


The film failed at the box office, taking in less than $6 million in a limited U.S. distribution.[2] Kundun was nominated for four Academy Awards: for Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, art direction and Francesca Lo Schiavo, set decoration), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score (Philip Glass).

Critical reception[edit]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 75% of 61 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 7.4/10. The website's consensus reads, "Hallucinatory but lacking in characterization, Kundun is a young Dalai Lama portrait presented as a feast of sight and sound."[14] Metacritic calculated an average score of 74 out of 100 based on 26 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[15]

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.

Roger Ebert[16]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, saying it was "made of episodes, not a plot".[16] Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film "emotionally remote" while praising its look and its score: "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 Himalayan music of the spheres, gathers force and energy and the music and pictures achieve a sublime synergy."[3] Richard Corliss praised the cinematography and score as well: "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."[8] 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."[17]

Michael Wilmington of The Chicago Tribune gave the film four stars out of four, writing: "Hauntingly beautiful, raptly serious and vastly ambitious, Kundun is exactly the sort of movie that critics complain the major Hollywood studios never make -- and then tend to ignore or underrate when it finally appears."[18]

Barry Norman at the BBC opined that Kundun was "beautifully and intelligently made, far more impressive, for instance, than the recent Seven Years in Tibet".[19] 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 said,

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."[19]


Ceremony Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards Best Art Direction Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo Nominated
Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Nominated
Best Costume Design Dante Ferretti Nominated
Best Original Dramatic Score Philip Glass Nominated
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases Roger Deakins Nominated
Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film Martin Scorsese and Barbara De Fina Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Won
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Nominated
Best Original Score Philip Glass Nominated
Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Foreign Film Kundun Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Original Score Philip Glass Nominated
Heartland Film Festival Truly Moving Picture Award Martin Scorsese Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Music Philip Glass Won
National Society of Film Critics Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Won
New York Film Critics Circle Best Cinematographer Roger Deakins Won

In popular culture[edit]

In the second episode of The Sopranos, titled "46 Long" (1999), Christopher Moltisanti and Brendan Filone see Martin Scorsese outside a club, to whom Christopher says, "Marty! Kundun, I liked it."[citation needed]

The movie inspired the writing of the 2008 song "Chinese Democracy" off the album of the same name by hard rock band Guns N' Roses.[20]

In 2017 the web series Lasagna Cat featured the film's complete score in the hour-long episode "07/27/1978", in which John Blyth Barrymore delivers a philosophical monologue about a Garfield strip published on the titular date.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Kundun (1997)". British Film Institute.
  2. ^ a b c Kundun from The Numbers
  3. ^ a b 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". Archived from the original on December 5, 2016. Retrieved May 29, 2008.
  6. ^ "Young Spiritual Leader Arrives in New York Ready to Teach and Be Taught" from the New York Times May 16, 2008
  7. ^ Ryan, Gavin (2011). Australia's Music Charts 1988–2010 (PDF ed.). Mt Martha, Victoria, Australia: Moonlight Publishing. p. 114.
  8. ^ a b c Disney's China Policy from Time magazine
  9. ^ "Change of direction for Scorsese". The National.
  10. ^ "37 Celebrities Banned From Foreign Countries". BuzzFeed. Archived from the original on November 16, 2012. Retrieved September 2, 2017.
  11. ^ Barboza, David; Barnes, Brooks (June 14, 2016). "How China Won the Keys to Disney's Magic Kingdom". The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  12. ^ Brzeski, Patrick (June 8, 2016). "Shanghai Disney Resort Finally Opens After 5 Years of Construction and $5.5B Spent". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on June 9, 2016. Retrieved June 9, 2016.
  13. ^ Rongji, Zhu (January 8, 2015). Zhu Rongji on the Record: The Road to Reform: 1998-2003. ISBN 9780815726296.
  14. ^ "Kundun". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved January 12, 2022. Edit this at Wikidata
  15. ^ "Kundun Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved March 6, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  16. ^ a b Review by Roger Ebert
  17. ^ Edelstein, David (December 26, 1997). "Holding Their Fire". Slate. Retrieved September 23, 2008.
  18. ^ Wilmington, Michael (January 16, 1998). "HEAVEN SENT". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 29, 2010.
  19. ^ a b "Martin Scorsese's KUNDUN conundrum". Radio Times. April 4–10, 1998.
  20. ^ Flumenbaum, David (February 24, 2009). "China Bans Democracy, Declares War on Guns N' Roses". The Huffington Post. Archived from the original on July 11, 2015. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  21. ^ "Garfield, by smoking a pipe, has opened up a whole new world of dumb internet Garfield jokes". News. Archived from the original on December 1, 2019. Retrieved August 8, 2020.

External links[edit]