When Kundun came out in 1997 I had already seen a handful of Martin Scorsese’s films—Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull—and I knew that he was regarded as one of the most important contemporary American filmmakers. I knew that his name meant something important. Even with this somewhat limited knowledge, I understood as a young teenager reading about Kundun in Entertainment Weekly and Premiere (my main sources for film news in those early days of the Internet) that it was something of an anomaly both in terms of its subject and its quality. Didn’t Scorsese make movies about crime and cities and Italian guys beating each other up? What happened to Robert de Niro? And weren’t his movies supposed to be, like, good? How come the reviews for this one were so middling?
I finally watched Kundun for the first time last week. Turns out it’s…okay. About as good as I had expected. Gorgeous production values. Impeccable crew. Plot isn’t slow, exactly; it moves at a pace that’s deliberate but certainly not glacial. The question that hangs over Kundun is “why.” Why did Scorsese want to make this movie? Why does this movie exist? It’s possible to understand Kundun by grouping it with Scorsese’s other religious films—The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and his upcoming Silence (2016), the latter of which is to be, like Kundun, a period picture set in Asia. And one can perhaps understand it as an expression of Scorsese’s long-time love for world cinema, also seen in his championing of Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life and Zhuangzhuang Tien’s Horse Thief as two of the best films of the 1990s, his establishment of the World Cinema Foundation, etc. Still: Kundun doesn’t feel urgent and necessary in the way that Scorsese’s best films do. Placing it does not necessarily help to justify or explain its existence—nor does it really help make it easier to watch.