THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
HOW ACCURATE IS 'KUNDUN'?
MOVIES: SEVERAL LOCAL PEOPLE
WHO KNOW OF TIBET AND THE DALAI
LAMA FIND NUMEROUS FLAWS IN
Wednesday, January 21, 1998
Credit: HIEU TRAN PHAN: THE ORANGE COUNTY
The "motherland" must save Tibet from Western
imperialism. Mao Tse-Tung cites this reason in "Kundun"
for China's invasion of its neighbor.
But two experts on Tibet saw a different imperialism
throughout the movie, which opened in local theaters last
month. Martin Scorsese's portrayal of the Dalai Lama
before his exile is saturated with superficiality, say Pam
Logan and Nawang Phuntsog. "This is Hollywood
imperialism at its best," Phuntsog says. "They play on
movie-goers' pity for the sketchy, media-generated version of Tibet and His
Holiness. The culture and setting come out only half right."
Phuntsog, a Tibetan native, teaches education at California State University,
Fullerton. He immigrated to the United States in 1986. Logan is president of the
Kham Aid Foundation. She travels several times a year to Tibet. Her group
works to restore monasteries, provide basic health care, promote education,
spur economic development and foster cultural understanding through guided
trips for tourists.
Logan and Phuntsog caught a recent showing of "Kundun." Here's how they
dissected Scorsese's depiction of Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
What are your first impressions?
Phuntsog: A film about Tibet -- in English. That pretty much sums it up. Why
couldn't they use subtitles? It's awkward when Tibetans speak English with
rough accents. They billed `Kundun' as authentically Tibetan, complete with
actors who associated with His Holiness or are his relatives. . . . Now, there was
a scene toward the end . . .
Logan: Yeah, it showed a woman speaking and crying in Tibetan to the
departing Dalai Lama. That was so genuine. It was one of the few powerful
Let's go through some aspects of the movie. How about the setting?
Logan: It was Morocco (where `Kundun' was filmed), all right.
Phuntsog: The cities in the movie are desolate, whereas in real life they're
crowded with huts. There were too few people joining in processions with His
Logan: But they were right on with the costumes, dances and interiors of the
We can't forget Buddhism. Don't Tibetans have a reputation for being the most
religious people on Earth?
Logan: That's right. And the movie messed up on this part, too. We heard little
chanting from the monks, and the Dalai Lama never chanted -- not a word. Real
Tibetan monks spend many hours chanting as part of their monastic training. The
sound is wonderful; it goes right to the heart of their spirituality.
Phuntsog: I had a problem with the youngest actor portraying His Holiness as a
child. He remained mischievous after his discovery as the next Dalai Lama. He
was bored with meditating, he made faces . . . little monks in reality are ethereal
and magical. They show incredible discipline and sophistication.
Logan: Of the four Dalai Lama actors, the oldest one was best. Still, none of
them captured the combination of wisdom and humor that the real man exudes.
Did you two enjoy any part of `Kundun'?
Logan: I have to give Scorsese a lot of credit for refusing to frame Tibet as the
valiant David and China as the merciless Goliath. He accurately showed the ups
and downs of these two nations' relationship. . . . We see how the Dalai Lama
believed in China's promises of goodwill at first. We get insight into the incredible
demands of governance placed on this young man, his being torn between fear
for his people and hopes for a brighter Tibet. The media paint it as black and
white in hindsight, but His Holiness didn't have that luxury.
Phuntsog: It wasn't substantial enough, but I like how we got glimpses of the
divisions among the Dalai Lama's government. During the initial invasion, it was
hard to tell if China was lying or genuinely trying to help.
Any other positives?
Phuntsog: Remember that nightmare His Holiness had?
Logan: Oh, you're right. The one where he stood among an endless ocean of
monks' bloody corpses. The film summed up all the years of violence with
basically that one image.
Phuntsog: But . . . I don't mean to sound so harsh, but movie-goers will probably
remember the sky-burial scene most. (The body of the Dalai Lama's father is
dismembered and fed to vultures after he dies.) That's because Scorsese failed
to explain the sacred philosophy behind it -- that nothing should be wasted, that
death should be used to sustain life.
Logan: I can see people walking out saying, `How gross!' and `Yuck!'
Sounds like you two wouldn't see `Kundun' a second time. Or would you?
Logan: No, I wouldn't go again. Most people will leave knowing pretty much
what they knew coming in. And if they don't have much background on Tibet,
they'll like this Hollywood production because it preys on their emotions without
Phuntsog: I plan to take my children (who were born in the United States) to see
it. But we're going to thoroughly discuss the movie's stereotypes vs. the realities.
For what it is, the movie is better than nothing.