Kundun (1997)




Director:     Martin Scorsese.

Starring:     Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (Adult Dalai Lama), 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), Tsewang Migyur Khangsar (Dalai Lama's Father), Geshi Yeshi Gyatso (Lama of Sera), Sonam Phuntsok (Reting Rinpoche), Lobsang Samten (Master of the Kitchen), Robert Lin (Chairman Mao), Gyatso Lukhang (Lord Chamberlain), Tsewang Jigme Tsarong (Taktra Rinpoche), Tenzin Trinley (Ling Rinpoche), Ngawang Dorjee (Kashag/Nobleman #1), Phintso Thonden (Kashag/Nobleman #2), Kim Chan (Second Chinese General), Tenzin Topjar (Lobsang, Ages 5 to 10), Tenzin Lodoe (Takster), Tsering Lhamo (Tsering Dolma), Tashi Dhondup (Lobsang, Adult), Jampa Lungtok (Nechung Oracle), Ben Wang (General Chang Chin-Wu), Henry Yuk (General Tan), Ngawang Kaldan (Prime Minister Lobsang Tashi), Jurme Wangda (Prime Minister Lukhangwa), Selden Kunga (Tibetan Doctor),  Tenzin Rampa (Tenzin Chonegyl, Age 12), Vyas Ananthakrishnan (Indian Soldier).

Based on the life story of the 14th Dalai Lama.  A young boy, Tenzin Gyatso is identified as the newly reincarnated form of the Dalai Lama. In order to fulfill his spiritual mission, he is taken to live in a monastery where he receives his religious instruction. When the Chinese army invades Tibet in 1950, he is forced into exile.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Good movie.

1933  --  the 13th Dalai Lama dies. 

1937  --  a holy man, disguised as a servant, is in a far corner of Tibet searching for the 14th Dalai Lama, the Buddha reborn. 

Lhamo is the youngest son of a Tibetan family in the area.  Strangers come to his home.  They are intrigued with Lhamo and talk with him to see if he is the Dalai Lama. 

1939  --  Lhamo travels with the monks to Lhasa  He meets his regent, Reting.  The young boy settles in but doesn't particularly like his situation.  He finds it a bit dreary and dull.  But the monks say that maybe he will like the summer palace better. 

Reting resigns.  The monks tell the Dalai Lama that Reting went on a retreat.  Another regent is to be chosen, but the Dalai Lama makes his own selection. 

1944  --  the Dalai Lama crashes the car while learning to drive.  He asks how many soldiers Tibet has and is impressed by the answer: 5,000 soldiers. Reting is arrested, but the monks are not willing to share the real reasons with the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai Lama is concerned that Reting receive the best treatment in prison and is reassured when the monks say he will be so treated.  Reassured by the monks, the death of Reting in prison comes as a shock to the Dalai Lama. 

The Dalai Lama's father dies and the Dalai Lama officiates at the ceremony.

Mao Tse-tung is in control in China.  He has three demands, basically saying that Tibet will be incorporated into greater China.   

1949  --  the Dalai Lama hears those dreaded words:  "The Chinese have invaded."  They have crossed at six places at Chamdo. 

November 17, 1950 --  the Dalai Lama is officially enthroned.  He is told to leave immediately after the ceremony as a precaution.  He and his immediate retinue travel to the Dungkhar Monastery on the border with India, but still in Tibet.  General Chang Chin-Wu of the Chinese army brings the Dalai Lama a copy of the 17 Point Agreement for his signature.  The Dalai Lama remains quiet through the ceremony, and does not sign. 

The Dalai Lama says: "I'm going back."  Once back, things only get worse as the Chinese place more and more demands on Tibet.  The Tibetan Prime Ministers resign because the Chinese will not deal with them any longer. 

The Tibetans hope for help from abroad, but no one help is offered.  The United Nations even votes not to hear the Tibetan appeal.   Given the hopelessness of the situation, the Dalai Lama decides to travel to Peking to talk to Chairman Mao.  He tries to find some basis for a decent relationship with the chairman, but is totally turned off when Mao tells him that religion is a poison that weakens the race and that Tibet itself has been poisoned by religion. 

Back from Peking, the Dalai Lama visits his old home.  He receives more bad news, this time about the murder of monks and nuns.  The Chinese are even forcing the nuns and monks to fornicate in the streets.  Again the Dalai Lama is asked to leave Tibet for India, but he continues to reject the idea.

More bad news arrives.  General Tan tells the Dalai Lama that 40,000 Chinese farmers will arrive to live in Tibet.  More pressure is put on the Dalai Lama to flee: "If they kill you, they kill Tibet. You must flee."

The Dalai Lama, after a long resistance, finally agrees to leave Tibet.  He dresses in a Chinese uniform and sets off with a small group.  It is a long journey with some close calls, but the Dalai Lama finally arrives at the border with India.  The Dalai Lama crosses the border into safety. 


It's a good movie, but sometimes it drags a bit.  Or maybe I am just more impatient, after seeing two other movies about the Dalai Lama and already knew the story.  There is quite a bit of religious philosophy in the movie.  Some of it is interesting, while some of it is definitely not.  The escape journey sequence is a little long for my tastes.   But these are minor criticisms.  So enjoy. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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