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Kundun - the name of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet - generates many comparisons to Seven Years since they both concern the early life of the Dalai Lama, before his exile into India. However Kundun recounts much more of his life, from his discovery at age two all the way to his flight into exile at age twenty-four (in 1959), to escape the tyranny of Mao Tse-tung. In addition, there are no American stars, so the focus is entirely on the Dalai Lama. For this reason, those movie goers who are primarily interested in either the Dalai Lama's heroic struggle or in the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism will find Kundun the more richly rewarding experience.
Though it is beyond the scope of this review to get into Tibetan Buddhism, a few things can be said. First, Kundun is an extremely beautifully filmed movie, especially some of the scenes of the "magical" fortune-telling rituals, chanting and temple altars. Therefore, even if you are not Buddhist, you will enjoy watching the movie. Second, it may not really be all that important whether we Americans believe that the Dalai Lama is in fact the "fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion" or not. This is because there are vast cultural/technological differences between Tibet and America. In Tibet, the townspeople passively get on their hands and knees bowing to Kundun and wait for him to "bless" them - he is like their hope, their savior; in America, and in most of the west, this is not likely to happen - in our "information age," what we want from the Dalai Lama is not so much his blessing, but his insight. In this sense, we can ask, "What insight does Kundun offer?"
If you get beyond the Tibetan-specific magic and rituals, the Dalai Lama comes across as really just a man, not a god. Of course, he is "special" in that he is believed to be an actual reincarnation of the Buddha. This is actually one of the more interesting facets of the movie to us in the west - what exactly is Kundun: god, man, or "spirit?" In any case, one of the points the movie makes is that not even Kundun is beyond criticism; there are some times when Kundun's teachers need to correct his thinking on key points. Interestingly, a central point of Buddhism is that we all need to have a teacher; we can't simply enlighten ourselves. In Kundun, these teachers are wonderfully played, and if we listen carefully to what they say, and to what Kundun himself says, we can receive insights into the truth of the Buddhist teachings. In contrast to Seven Years, Kundun includes more mention of some of the basic teachings of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma of impermanence, and the awakening of compassion. Certainly, the extremely troubling destruction of Tibet by the Chinese army powerfully illustrates the truth of impermanence and compassion. In this way, even though the Tibetan culture on one level seems very "foreign" to us, on a basic human level, their story nonetheless is extremely moving.