When Martin Scorcese’s KUNDUN was released on Christmas Day, 1997, its box office prospects were decidedly slim. The film cost $24 million and only took in a paltry $5.6 million, far below the $42 million for CASINO (1995) or even the $16 million for BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1997). But the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama—from his founding at age four through his flight to India during the attacks on Tibet by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution—was going to be a tough sell at any time.
With its justly Oscar-nominated cinematography, art direction, and costume design, the film is sumptuous to look at. But Melissa Mathison’s script only gives us the barest glimpses of the dramatic tale underneath and Scorcese seems more content to concentrate on images rather than story or fully realized characters. That being said, KUNDUN is one of those guilty pleasures I’ve always found fascinating to watch. Much of that fascination comes from the juxtaposition of Scorcese’s images with the haunting score by Philip Glass.
His own Buddhist beliefs made Glass a natural to provide the music. And Glass’ repetitive, minimalist style, which worked so well against the fluid images of Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI (1982) and POWAQQATSI (1988), gives KUNDUN much of its movement and atmosphere.
The film begins with the memorable image of a sand mandala being formed while a female voiceover tells young Norbu the story of his birth. The bold sounds of low male chanting are supported by Tibetan ceremonial horns and cymbals. Violins play repeated ostinati while flutes chirp in undulating rhythmic cells above. The music may not tell us much dramatically, but it sets the aural tone for the entire film.
Flute arpeggios over seesawing strings flit in the air as the young Dalai Lama-to-be chooses his possessions. Contrabassoon settles on the bottom of a low string melody as steady chords and cymbals punctuate the piano and harp figures as the caravan moves out. Timpani and Tibetan horns slash through the strings as the letter of the thirteenth Dalai Lama is read under a plaintive trumpet melody. A pulsating wordless chorus accompanies the Dalai Lama’s dangerous escape into India.
One of the memorable sequences shows blood pouring into a koi pond. The red disturbs the tranquil blue of the water just as the blood of the dead monks covers the peaceful land of Tibet following a massacre by the Chinese. Clarinets and flutes swirl in the air while cellos give voice to the monks’ nonviolence and a muted timpani provides their quiet heartbeats.
The score won the Los Angeles Film Critics, helping it to gain some pre-Oscar attention and its Oscar nomination is richly deserved. Though the score doesn’t delve into the characters and can’t overcome the lack of drama in the script, Glass’ music provides a hypnotic aural landscape to the film that adds to the story’s mysticism.