Many of Martin Scorsese’s films involve what he calls “eye for an eye” characters—gangsters, prizefighters, street gangs, and the like. And yet, in 1997 he directed Kundun, an autobiography of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, whose philosophy and conduct of life is about as far removed from violence and retribution as it could possibly be. What gives?
That question is addressed in Michael H. Wilson’s documentary In Search of Kundun, which also provides a behind-the-scenes look at Scorsese and his crew at work on Kundun. It seems Scorsese had an early interest in Tibet, thanks in part to the 1952 Columbia Pictures feature film Storm Over Tibet, which combined documentary footage shot in Tibet with some more ordinary Hollywood backlot stuff. Given Scorsese’s lifelong interest in pageantry (he has named The Red Shoes as one of the favorite films of his childhood), it stands to reason that he would become intrigued with Tibetan culture. He also notes that, as a child, he followed news reports of the Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape from Tibet to India, fleeing from what were then called “the Red Chinese.”
A second source of appeal of the story, Scorsese says, is the complete contrast between how Kundun’s characters live their lives, as compared to the violent path followed by many featured in his other films. It’s worth remembering, in this regard, that Scorsese had already directed The Last Temptation of Christ (in 1988), and had once considered becoming a priest, so the world of spirituality was part of his life as much as the world of gangsters and tough guys was. And, as revealed in this documentary (and as you already know if you’ve seen Kundun), the conflict between Tibet and China was all about power, even if the participants don’t exactly duke it out on screen.
If you’re interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes details of how films get made, you’ll love In Search of Kundun. Scorsese is a great interview subject—he’s articulate about what he’s doing and why, and in explaining how one film relates to another. As you will see, he’s also quite good when dealing with child actors (a necessity for this film), and generous in sharing details of his working process. In Search of Kundun also lets us hear from, among others, production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, as well as some of the cast members and the Dalai Lama himself.
Wilson didn’t have a particularly prolific career (he seems to have directed only one other feature besides this one, and wrote a few screenplays also), so this film is a pleasant surprise—it’s not flashy, but is packed full of information and beautiful visuals. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Scorsese speak about film, I recommend checking out two other documentaries: My Voyage to Italy, which offers a great introduction to Italian cinema, and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. | Sarah Boslaugh
In Search of Kundun is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. I reviewed it via streaming link, and it’s very effective when viewed that way. According to the Kino Lorber website, extras on the DVD include an archival interview with the Dalai Lama, something called “The Oracle of Tibet,” an archival interview with Michael H. Wilson by John Halpern, and the film’s trailer; the DVD also offers English and French subtitles.