KUNDUN: Scorsese’s Dalai Lama Biopic Finds New Life on Blu-ray

Kino Lorber Studio Classics assembles an in-depth reappraisal of a film by one of cinema’s most devout directors

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of writing about Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and how both films made me look at my own my intertwined beliefs on film and faith. I found Bresson and Scorsese’s films fascinating due to their powerful conviction in their characters’ beliefs, however waning they may be — and how both directors depicted their faith in such a universal way that transcended the worldly trappings of Christianity. It was Kundun’s context of being in a trilogy with Last Temptation and his later Silence that made me seek it out — and, upon discovering the film was a biopic of Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama, I was curious to see how Scorsese would depict the most central figure of a faith he doesn’t practice himself.

The answer is, naturally, that Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Matheson focus on the faith of their central character rather than the cultural minutiae of Tibetan Buddhism — though that’s not to say that aspect’s own importance is diminished. Kundun is framed as a coming-of-age tale for the Dalai Lama, allowing Western audiences an easy entry point into the film’s themes of conflicting obligations between worldly power and transcendental belief. It’s an approach that imbues the film with the same sense of universality as Last Temptation. At the same time, Scorsese’s attention towards his Holiness’ fascination with the natural world — fighting beetles, wandering mice, roving buzzards — alongside Tibetan ritual and ceremony creates a sense of harmony and spiritualism that feels markedly absent from Western religion.

It’s fascinating to see how Scorsese explores the Dalai Lama’s faith over the course of the film, reckoning his steadfast belief in non-violence with the encroaching non-religious, unapologetically brutal forces that approach Tibet in the wake of World War II. Much like Bresson’s Country Priest, the Dalai Lama is a man tasked with unwavering spiritual fortitude that feels increasingly at odds with the world around him. And, like Scorsese’s Jesus, the Dalai Lama is a character whose mantle feels thrust upon him at birth, making him almost a victim of the beliefs of those surrounding him.

Where Kundun’s insight diverges from these other depictions of faith, though, is its melancholic hope of the impermanence of things. The Dalai Lama acknowledges his place in a constant cycle of reincarnation, which grants him a sense of foresight and humility that his aggressors cannot fathom. His beliefs do lead to tragic consequences — which are more often than not thrust upon his followers than himself — but still both the Dalai Lama and his followers refuse to let their faith be wavered by the loss of their country or their lives. Try as the Chinese might by invading their country and rewriting their place in history, the identity of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans cannot be erased. Rather, their identity is tied to this same transcendental faith in impermanence and nonviolence — something that cannot be tied to material worth, and therefore unable to be ruined or seized by outside forces.

As a film deliberately made without stars and about culturally specific ideas of religion, Kundun naturally faced an uphill battle in the West. It was a brief release, especially caught in the growing cultural shadow of James Cameron’s Titanic, which was released a week later. Kundun has enjoyed a growing reappraisal, however, and Kino Lorber Studio Classics has assembled a Blu-ray that contains a wealth of in-depth archival special features — many of which have not seen a release on previous editions.


Kino presents Kundun in a 1080/24p Master with 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. From the film’s opening moments, the Blu-ray’s transfer deftly captures Kundun’s visually rich cinematography, with a wide-ranging color palate with slight film grain. Minute visual details like colorful sand mandalas to inky black shadows are reverently preserved despite the lack of a higher-resolution master.

Special Features:

  • Audio Commentary with Film Journalist Peter Tonguette: Tonguette’s newly-recorded track delves into Kundun’s diverse themes, its context in Scorsese’s filmography, its approaches in depicting non-violence, and the film’s reputation over 20 years since the film’s release.
  • In Search of Kundun: A feature-length documentary about the making of the film, with on-set footage and on-location interviews that capture how the filmmakers created an intimate story on an epic scale.
  • Compassion in Exile: A 1993 feature-length documentary on the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, with interviews of his Holiness and archival footage of the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
  • Interviews with Director Martin Scorsese, Composer Philip Glass, and Screenwriter/Producer Melissa Matheson: Each interview runs about 40 minutes in length and feels like raw EPK interviews for larger material. That said, each one is both off-the-cuff and stunningly informative, as each creative head details how they got involved with Kundun’s production as well as their candid thoughts on the history and then-current situations facing Tibet.
  • Interview with In Search of Kundun Director Michael Henry Wilson: Details how the filmmaker became swept into documenting Scorsese’s production abroad in Morocco.
  • Archival EPK with Cast and Crew: 45 minutes of behind-the-scenes and interview footage, divided into The Production Design, Interviews with Cast and Crew, and B-Roll on Set.
  • Kundun Theatrical Trailer
  • Booklet Essay by Filmmaker Zade Constantine: A brief look at Scorsese’s motivations for making the film, as well as an appreciation for its technical prowess and an earnest plea for its reappraisal in the wake of similar Scorsese films like 2016’s Silence.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases their Kundun Special Edition Blu-ray on October 29, 2019.

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