Religion and Film (religionandfilm) wrote,
Religion and Film

A second entry in my Religion and Film course

Movie: Kundun


Week 1/28/07-2/3/07

Journal Entry 2,

I’ll start by saying what another fine film! One reason I see myself enjoying this class is because of the opportunity to watch films that I would never otherwise come across. I did have some experience with Chronicles of Narnia, but this was something that was completely new to me. In addition to the film being alien to be, so was the religion of Tibetan Buddhism, so it was also very enriching to learn different aspects of the religion itself.

The movie title was ‘Kundun’, and was directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s a movie that’s based on the life of the Dali Lama (14th), and his struggles against the shadows that overcast the Tibetan people. These shadows have to do with a suppressive communist China that seeks to swallow Tibet back into it’s borders. With this, we focus on the Dali Lama’s internal and external struggles as he tries to deal and cope with the difficulty of being the political and spiritual leader of his people.

After researching a bit, I learned that Kundun itself is a term used to address the Dali Lama, which literally meant “presence”. I found this interesting, because the film has a lot of themes that have to due with presence. The main storyline and drama of the film has to due with two conflicted forms of presence. The first is the internal presence of the Dali Lama. After finding out about the Chinese efforts to invade Tibet, the story focuses around whether the Dali Lama will remain in Tibet. His presence is a key focal point as he struggles internally on whether he should escape to neighboring India, or remain in the presence of his followers. I found this interesting; especially since some of us forget to see the power behind the title of a film or story. This title in itself describes another struggle of presence. This pertains to the Chinese government, and it’s decision to invade Tibet. On one hand we have the drama of the ‘presence’ of the Dali Lama, while on the other hand we have the ‘presence’ of Mao and his suppressive regime. This is something interesting to think about.

Besides the whole conflict of dualistic ‘presence’, we have another conflict. This is a conflict we find as a focal point of our own lives. This is the struggle behind religion/faith and sectarian regimes. In Tibet we are almost given a perfect Eden like land where the Dali Lama rules his people with the love and patience of Buddhism, yet on Tibets outskirts are the evil forces of a sectarian anti-religion government. Just as the struggles we find with radical Islam and terrorism, we have this Sectarian vs. Religion struggle in the film. We also have a dualistic nature of a moral/ethical system, and it’s struggle. On one hand, we have the monastic ethical and moral laws of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as those teachings of the Dali Lama and the 4 noble truths. Yet on the other hand, we have the ethical system of the Chinese government, as displayed in Mao’s political philosophies and the points agreement that he wants Tibet to agree two. Each have their own system of morality; one found in religious philosophy and the other in political ideology?

So now that we have all these struggles; sectarian vs religion, internal vs external, philosophy vs politics, can we expect to find any room for a transcendental theme? I would say so. Even though we understand Buddhism as being more of a philosophy than anything else, I would see the branch of Tibetan Buddhism as having some transcendental themes. Some I found in the film surrounded the way of the Samsara/reincarnation of the Dali Lama. We also find it in the Dali Lama’s visions, and the oracle/prophecies. Besides that, I don’t see any transcendental conflict in the movie. These transcendental themes don’t play some major conflict role, but are rather shown to add to the Dali Lama’s credibility of being the 14th.

Some other things I wish to touch upon are the music, some imagery, and it’s relation to our previous film; Chronicles. As for the music itself; it may very well be the most masterful part of the film. The film itself moved you throughout the films story. The music adds to my previous mention of presence. The music’s presence in the film also comes in the form of two clashing ideas. On one hand, we have this monastic Tibetan music that’s full of monks chanting and the sound of their base repetitive voices. As much of the film is in Tibet, we find this music in the background during ritual scenes, and other Tibetan events. Yet with the very first introduction of the Chinese soldiers, who looked like inhuman soldiers made of gray clay, we find the vibrant clash of cookie cutter-Chinese voices. The Chinese music seems much like the type of stuff we’d find in Chinese propaganda, and the music itself sounds as if it has some inspiration of the west (I’m not a music major, but it sounds modern to me). Because I hear this modernization and propaganda in the Chinese music, I see it as somewhat secular. This reflects that conflict of Buddhism religious philosophy (Tibetan chants and music), and Mao’s communist China and it’s ideology (Propaganda type Chinese music).

Just as the two cultures, philosophies, and governments clash during the film, we have these two types of music. Maybe I was the only one who noticed, but I could have sworn that as the Chinese made their ‘presence’ more known, the Chinese music came in more often. Also, the propaganda secular sounds of the Chinese music is enforced by the scene of the kids singing as the Dali Lama made his way to Mao. These kids, like their clay-like soldiers, seemed to be cookie-cuted. It adds to that image that we get when we think of a suppressive brainwashing communist China, and that image is reflected in their singing. Interesting how as the Dali Lama makes his way towards Mao, the other guy closes the window to prevent the ‘presence’ of the music from invading the inside of the car. Powerful image of conflict here.

As mentioned in class, ‘Kundun’ comes off as a propaganda like film. I felt myself angry at the Chinese after watching. The Chinese and Mao are made to seem so evil, so vile, and so inhuman. It was interesting to watch how we are given the images of the Chinese. They appear like robots (the kids singing), emotionless statues (soldiers), and stiff and cold (Mao).

So what similarity do I see in the two films? I would say the images of good vs. evil. We have Good (Humans+Aslan, and Tibet+dali Lama) vs Evil (White Witch+Her army, and Mao+His Communist Army). We have a conflict of hope and goodness vs coldness and despair. Just as the white witch appeared cold in her persona and power, so does Mao expressed some chilling features.

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