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Friday, July 30, 1999


On the wheel of payback

At first glance, Martin Scorsese may not seem the most likely candidate to direct the life story of the Dalai Lama, but he's done just that with his latest film "Kundun." Probably, when most people think of Scorsese, they immediately recall scenes of mean New York streets, brutal violence and volatile Mafiosi -- in that light, "Kundun's" world of monks and meditation, sand mandalas and sutras will certainly come as a surprise. But it's worth remembering that Marty is also the same director who made the only thoughtful religious film to come out of Hollywood in the last couple of decades, "The Last Temptation of Christ," and who, as a boy growing up in Little Italy, considered joining the priesthood.

Certainly any viewing of Scorsese's works reveals a man profoundly aware of the wheel of karma, or as one of his wiseguys would put it, payback. Whether it's the end of "Mean Streets," with small-time hood Harvey Keitel and friends in a car riddled with bullets, "Raging Bull," with washed-up boxer Jake LaMotta fat, drunk and friendless, or "Taxi Driver," where an insane America embraces its insane antihero Travis Bickle, in nearly all of his films, Scorsese has shown a keen understanding of the karmic process of cause and effect, how choices -- conscious or otherwise -- produce consequences that are inescapable.

In this sense, "Kundun" is the antithesis to recent Scorsese works like "Goodfellas" and "Casino." In those films, Scorsese shows us men confronted by external and internal turmoil, whose choices lead them to self-destruct, devoured entirely by greed, violence, suspicion and jealousy. (And self-destruction is a concept Scorsese is intimately familiar with, as reflected by his near-death from cocaine abuse in the '70s.) With "Kundun," Scorsese maps out the life story of a man who, confronted with struggle, tries to make some moral choices. It's this -- not any supposed notion of "Tibetan chic" -- that drew him to the story.

Based on the life story of the Dalai Lama, "Kundun" is on one level a fairly straightforward bio-pic: It starts when a young peasant child, Tenzin Gyatso, is discovered to be the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, the religious ruler of Tibet. The film takes us through a crash course in the religious culture of Tibet, a heady rush of ritual, pageantry and philosophy, shown through the eyes of the young Dalai Lama, who is just as awestruck at his new surroundings. The confusion the boy is faced with, as he begins to realize the effect the encroaching modern world will have on his country's traditions, is poignantly conveyed.

When the Communist Chinese invade and "liberate" Tibet in 1949, the Dalai Lama (played as an adult by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) hopes to reach a compromise with the Red Army. In the film's most powerful scene, the Dalai Lama goes to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong (played by Robert Lin). He attempts to be reasonable, suggesting that "I think Socialism and Buddhism have some things in common." Mao is polite, but finally, leans over, and hisses confidentially to the young Tibetan, "Religion is poison." It's an astonishingly chilling moment, and the deadened look of despair in the young Tibetan's eyes echoes with silent fury. Brilliant acting, brilliant filmmaking.

It's at this point in any other Scorsese film where that moment comes, the moment the director has described as "There is nothing more to say; you start pulling guns." Certainly Mao, with his stated belief that "all politics comes from the barrel of a gun," was of the same mindset as any of the "Goodfellas" Mafiosi. But the Dalai Lama, as we all know, rejected this approach, instead fleeing into exile, from which he has led a campaign of nonviolent resistance.

Scorsese, in an interview with critic Amy Taubin, said he found this extraordinary. "I grew up in an area where the people, even though they try their best, are prone to the other way, which is destruction."

If there's one criticism of "Kundun," it's that Scorsese is a tad too reverential. In our postmodern age of rampant cynicism and caustic irony, people don't "buy" saints -- they either can't or don't wish to believe that such pure beings can exist. So to work as a film, "Kundun" needs to get audiences past Dalai Lama the icon, and make them feel for Tenzin Gyatso, the man, a boy deprived of his childhood, an adult shouldering the weight of an invaded nation.

But that can be forgiven, in light of the film's many strengths. "Kundun" is peopled entirely with Tibetan exile actors, mostly nonprofessionals, who pour their hearts into their roles, as in some sense this film is a document of a culture that is threatened with extinction. (The Lhasa locales, obviously off-limits to the filmmakers, are re-created with remarkable accuracy in Morocco's mountains.)

The final 30 minutes of "Kundun" take you on an incredible flight of pure cinema, as Scorsese, assisted by his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, fashions an almost wordless tapestry of dream and destruction, past memory and future prophecy. Set to a soaring soundtrack by Philip Glass, the effect is similar to "Koyaanisqatsi," and just as powerful.

"Whatever has passed will not be seen again" is one stray kernel of Buddhist wisdom tossed out in "Kundun." The same is true of this film: See it on the big screen, or forever regret it -- video will do it no justice.

"Kundun" is playing at Yebisu Garden Cinema.

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