Kundun (1997)

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Released 28-Jun-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio & Animation
Featurette-The Fight For Kundun
Featurette-Tibet Today
Featurette-Amnesty International Australia
Biographies-Character-Dalai Lama
Biographies-Crew-Martin Scorsese
Theatrical Trailer
Notes-Australia Tibet Council
DVD Credits
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1997
Running Time 128:49
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (75:40) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Martin Scorsese

Shock Entertainment
Starring Tenzin Thuthiob Tsarong
Gyurme Tethong
Case Soft Brackley-Transp
RPI $34.95 Music Philip Glass

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Kundun re-enacts the life and times of Tibet's spiritual leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, from just before he was "discovered" as a young child to just after he fled to India because of China's invasion of Tibet. It is directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) and the screenplay is written by Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) based on the autobiography of the Dalai Lama entitled Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

    The Tibetans practice a form of Buddhism. They believe that their head of state and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is a manifestation of the Bodhisattva (a Buddha-like enlightened being) of Compassion. Thus all Dalai Lamas are really the same person reborn again and again so that Tibet as a whole will benefit from his continued presence and rule.

    The film begins with the "discovery" or recognition of a small two-year old boy, Lhamo Dhondrub, as the reincarnation of his predecessor the 13th Dalai Lama. The film shows Llamo as a boisterous and demanding young boy, living with his peasant family in a small village called Taktser in north eastern Tibet. When a group of high lamas (monks) and dignitaries (travelling incognito) visit his home in search of the next Dalai Lama, Llamo sees a rosary of beads (that used to belong to the previous Dalai Lama) being worn by one of the lamas and immediately claims ownership and demands that he be given the rosary. The boy was also able to correctly guess that the lama was from the Sera monastery, which really impressed the travelling contingent. They subjected the boy to further tests where he was able to correctly identify items previously owned by the 13th Dalai Lama, including a walking stick and food bowl.

    Once recognised, the boy was taken to the massive palace called Potala located in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet where he would be groomed and educated to be the 14th Dalai Lama. His family were not allowed to join him but were recompensed so that they could live the high life. However, before he could assume full responsibilities, China invaded Tibet on the pretext that Tibet was a backward country that was clearly being "repressed" by the ruling elite and therefore it was China's responsibility to "liberate" the peasants. China also claimed that Tibet has always been part of China and therefore it wasn't really an annexation so much as bringing Tibet back to the bosom of the motherland.

    The Dalai Lama was urged by all his advisers to flee the country while he still could. He did start the journey to leave Tibet, but then decided to return as he felt he should really be with his people.

    One really nice touch in the film is that, contrary to expectations, the Chinese generals who greeted the Dalai Lama were not stereotyped as callous, cruel monsters but as mild mannered, well-meaning people who were just doing their job. Later on, of course, we do get to meet some nasty Chinese characters but I thought it was good to show that the enemy is not always completely evil.

    Initially the Dalai Lama tried to cooperate with the Chinese and even travelled to Beijing for a series of meetings with Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Robert Lin). However, it became apparent that life under Chinese rule would not be pleasant and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India. Despite the Dalai Lama's attempts to enlist international help, governments around the world averted their eyes and Tibet today is still ruled by China.

    There are certain things I like about the film. The actors are almost all Tibetans, and bring an uncanny sense of realism into the film. The Dalai Lama, for example, is played by a variety of actors, corresponding to various stages in the life of the real Dalai Lama: Tenzin Yeshi Paichang (age 2), Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin (age 5), Gyurme Tethong (age 10), and Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (adult). I also like the linking of the story of the film to a beautiful sand mandala. We see the sand painting being laboriously constructed using sands impregnated with different colours, and then at the end the mandala is destroyed and the sand mixed together and thrown into water. The landscapes (unfortunately not shot in Tibet as the producers were not allowed to film there) are also stunningly rendered in widescreen (the film was actually shot in Morocco, British Columbia and Idaho). There are also some nice digital and matte painting recreations of Tibetan landmarks such as the Potala. The cinematography (by Roger Deakins) and imagery in this film are absolutely superb.

    However, ultimately I was disappointed with the film. I think it's really hard to make a film about someone revered as a living god and make it interesting/relevant: either he is portrayed as omnipotently wise and perfect and hence difficult for the audience to relate to or empathise with, or he is portrayed as imbued with human frailty and hence not a god after all. Director Martin and writer Melissa try very hard to walk a fine line between the two but ultimately fail from both angles. The Dalai Lama is portrayed in a very passive way in the film: all these events happen to him and he seems powerless and not in control. He also comes across as being naive and prone to being pushed around, and yet he's supposed to be all wise and knowing. It is interesting to compare his seeming inaction with Gandhi - who was clearly born a man but rose above his imperfections to lead his people away from British rule and in the process almost became a god.

    The film also suffers in comparison to the other film about Tibet: Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer - also based on a true story about an arrogant Austrian mountain climber who made the journey of his life (both physical and spiritual) and eventually found himself in Tibet befriending the 14th Dalai Lama. Although this film is by no means without its own set of faults, it comes across better by telling the story from Heinrich's perspective rather than the Dalai Lama's.

    For more information, consult www.tibet.com and www.dalailama.com.

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Transfer Quality


    This is a ravishingly beautiful and stunning reference quality transfer presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with 16x9 enhancement.

    The opening scenes showing close-ups of the sand mandala being constructed contain intricate detail and feature perfect colour saturation. The rest of the film does not disappoint either, featuring beautiful panoramic landscapes, good detail and black levels and close-ups of faces in particular show amazing amounts of detail.

    There are no film-to-video artefacts whatsoever: no aliasing, no edge enhancement, no MPEG artefacts, just perfect picture quality. The fact that this disc has been authored locally by Madman Interactive makes it even more impressive: clearly our local authoring facilities have matured to the point where the end results are comparable to the best of the best.

    If I had to be picky, I can point to a few marks here and there in the film print, and a slight amount of grain noticeable in the film source right at the very end, but overall this is a really impressive transfer, and believe me if you own an LCD video projector and a 100" screen, transfers as good as this one are rare indeed.

    Unfortunately, the disc does not come with any subtitle tracks.

    This is a single sided dual layered disc (RSDL) and the layer change occurs at 75:40. The slight pause is mildly annoying.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is only one audio track on this disc: English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224 Kb/s). Given that the original theatrical release featured Dolby Digital 5.1 and SDDS audio tracks, it would have been nice to see a 5.1 track included on this disc.

    In general, I quite like this audio track. It is a little bit muffled and subdued compared to a real 5.1 track, but sounds quite pleasant and full-bodied. Dialogue was clear and easy to pick up (once you get used to the Tibetan accent) and I did not detect any audio synchronisation issues.

    The original music score by Philip Glass is not one of his best and sounds derivative of some of his other works. I would have loved it if he injected some of the drama and dynamics of Akhnaten and/or Mishima or even the vocal power of Satyagraha but at least the music seems oddly suited to the film.

    Unfortunately there are two audio mastering errors on this disc, manifesting themselves as loud "clicks" at around 4:50 and 4:52.

    Despite the lack of a surround flag on the audio track, the track appears to be surround-encoded as I was able to get significant rear channel activity when I turned on Dolby Pro Logic decoding. Overall, the surround presence and activity on this audio track is excellent - I felt enveloped by the audio track at all times and there is very intelligent use of the rear channels to convey not just musical ambience but Foley effects.

    Although there is some deep bass present at limited spots in the audio track, the Dolby Digital 2.0 encoding means that there is no LFE track and hence the subwoofer is completely unutilised.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    Given that the Region 1 release had minimal extras, it is refreshing to see that some effort has been made to assemble some extras for this disc. The extras seem to be locally produced as well - the voiceover in the two featurettes sounds distinctly Australian in accent and there is featurette entitled "Australia Tibet Council." It would have been nice if the DVD production house were able to include the 1998 documentary In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese as an extra - that would have made this DVD qualify as a special edition.


    The menu features intro, animation and background audio. I quite like the look of the menu graphics - they look incredibly sharp and detailed. Unfortunately the main menu is not 16x9 enhanced but the sub-menus are - some consistency would be nice.

Featurette-The Fight For Kundun (5:25)

    This is a short featurette about the making of the film, featuring mini-interviews with Martin Scorsese and Melissa Mathison, together with excerpts from black and white newsreels and other films of the era. Curiously, it is presented in a letterboxed aspect ratio of around 2.10:1 with no 16x9 enhancement.

Featurette-Tibet Today (8:00)

    This is a featurette showing actual photos of various locations in Tibet today, together with a mini-interview with Martin Scorsese. It is also presented in a letterboxed aspect ratio of around 2.10:1 with no 16x9 enhancement.

Featurette-Amnesty International Australia (1:01)

    This is a mini plug for the freedom of Tibet consisting of various stars reading various articles from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights including Richard Gere, Sting, Harrison Ford, Goldie Hawn, Julia Roberts, and a few others I couldn't recognise, credited to the Australia Tibet Council and Amnesty International Australia. It is presented in letterboxed 1.85:1 with no 16x9 enhancement.

Trailer-Windhorse (1:59)

    This is a trailer for a film set in modern day Tibet. It is also presented in letterboxed 1.85:1 with no 16x9 enhancement.

Biographies-Character-Dalai Lama

    This is a set of 13 stills containing a short biography of the 14th Dalai Lama, presented in an extreme aspect ratio of about 2.78:1 with 16x9 enhancement.

Biographies-Crew-Martin Scorsese

    This is a set of 17 stills containing a short biography and filmography of Martin Scorsese, presented in an extreme aspect ratio of about 2.78:1 with 16x9 enhancement.

Theatrical Trailer (2:28)

    This trailer is presented in roughly 1.66:1 with no 16x9 enhancement. The quality of the video transfer is rather poor.

Notes-Australia Tibet Council

    This is 2 stills containing a brief description of and contact details for the Australia Tibet Council, presented in an extreme aspect ratio of about 2.78:1 with 16x9 enhancement.

DVD Credits

    This is a still crediting those involved in the DVD production (from local authoring house Madman Interactive).

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on;

    The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on;

    This is a hard choice: 16x9 enhancement and extras vs a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. After some reflection, my vote goes to the Region 4 release because of the thought and care that seemed to have gone into making the disc, and also because the Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounded quite reasonable to me once I turned on Dolby Pro Logic decoding. I would like to make a plea to the distributor to re-release the Region 4 disc with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track which will then make it the definitive version to get.


    I desperately wanted to like Kundun, a dramatisation of the life and times of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, but ultimately I was disappointed in this film. It is presented on a DVD with a stunning reference quality video transfer, but unfortunately has only a 2 channel audio track instead of the original 5.1 track. It does come with a reasonable collection of extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Christine Tham (read my biography)
Friday, September 28, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-626D, using Component output
DisplaySony VPL-VW10HT LCD Projector, ScreenTechnics 16x9 matte white screen (254cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVR-3300
SpeakersFront and rears: B&W CDM7NT; centre: B&W CDMCNT; subwoofer: B&W ASW2500

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