There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
As a boy, Martin Scorsese considered becoming a priest, and as a filmmaker, he has been drawn to religious themes both serious (The Last Temptation of Christ) and glib (Cape Fear). That doesn’t make him America’s Robert Bresson, however. Scorsese’s true calling is the action/art film, not the cinematic meditation. Thus his Kundun, a problematically respectful account of the early life of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, remains becalmed until the brutal Chinese invasionthe film’s Joe Pesci characterfinally arrives.
Kundun, which is named for the Dalai Lama’s honorific, tries really hard to be delicate. The opening montage features the obligatory sand-painting mandala, an example of the flamboyant Tibetan aesthetic as well as a Buddhist symbol of transience and a metaphor for the country’s vulnerability. Despite the impressive sets, costumes, and locations (in Morocco, Idaho, and British Columbia), the emphasis is on the young spiritual leader himself (played by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang at 2, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin at 5, Gyurme Tethong at 12, and Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong as a young adult). This Dalai Lama is a precocious, humane, healing childin other words, roughly the same creature as the title character in scripter Melissa Mathison’s best-known screenplay, E.T. In one scene, the young leader separates two fighting insects.
The notion of Kundun as a wise innocent suits Hollywood’s Buddhists, for whom Kundun is the latest (and most artful) testimony. But Scorsese, whose interest in Tibet is more visual than theological, comes no closer to transcendence than the movie’s routine Philip Glass score. The director is lost without conflict, and Mathison’s script is unprepared to challenge the notion of pre-invasion Lhasa as a mystic paradise. (In this respect, the cruder Seven Years in Tibet seems more honest.) The film offers only the most oblique acknowledgment that Tibet was a feudal society: As he prepares to flee into exile, the Dalai Lama laments that “the saddest thing is that we were about to change.”
This pledged modernization wouldn’t suit Kundun, which takes much of its pleasure in Tibetan Buddhism’s medieval pomp and ritual. Elegantly shot by Roger Deakins and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, the film depicts elaborate costumes and sacred ceremonies with unabashed sensuality. (This is an approach no American filmmaker would take to, say, an ornate Roman Catholic mass; when Christianity is portrayed sympathetically in U.S. films, it’s always humbly appointed.) The effect is to conjure pre-invasion Tibet as a sort of reverie, a place beyond the grubby Western concerns of everyday life or, for that matter, narrative. That nearly all the actors are amateurs and unknowns only adds to the sense of disconnection.
Scorsese is not the contemplative type, however, and Tibet’s tragedy proves Kundun’s salvation. The movie becomes engaging only in its last half-hour, as China’s 1949 invasion brings bloody disharmony to this idealized land. The attack is presaged by one of the film’s few admissions of Tibetan Buddhism’s ferocity: Kundun’s father dies, and his body is ritually hacked into pieces to be fed to vultures in the traditional “sky burial.” The scene is shocking for its sudden violence but also satisfying for its candor.
After this, the film’s languorous dream yields to vivid nightmare, as reports of Chinese atrocities are mingled with the Dalai Lama’s premonitions of a bloodbath. The Tibetan leader travels to Beijing for a farcical meeting with Mao (Chinese-American performance artist Robert Lin), who tells him that “religion is poison. Your people are poisoned and inferior.” The camera inspects Mao’s shiny black shoes, a slick and soulless alternative to the opulent red-and-gold robes Kundun wore in Lhasa. The young man returns home, where he has a vision of blood billowing in a tranquil fishpond, the most serene of the film’s quick-cut representations of Communist Chinese brutality. Soon, the Dalai Lama makes a solemn retreat to India; the film ends with him gazing back toward the home he has never revisited.
As a movie, Kundun is a bit of a muddle, albeit a sumptuous one. As a statement of America’s (and Hollywood’s) hostility to politics, however, it could not be more explicit. “You cannot liberate me,” the Dalai Lama informs a Chinese general. “I can only liberate myself.” Arriving just two weeks after Wag the Dog, a political satire unblemished by political content, Kundun ultimately takes a very theatrical attitude toward a real-world struggle: Kundun triumphs because his is the moral victory, and besides, he’s got better outfits.
When Hard Rain begins, it’s already raining. Within a few minutes, people start shooting at each other. And that’s all you really need to know.
Actually, there are several twists in Graham Yost’s taut but doggedly one-dimensional script. First, a quartet of would-be thieves led by the ostentatiously polite Jim (Morgan Freeman) attempts to steal $3 million from a flood-stalled armored car manned by Tom (Christian Slater) and Charlie (Ed Asner). Then, Tom takes off with the cash, hides it in a semisubmerged crypt, and escapes from the crooks. Next, Tom seeks sanctuary in a church, only to be clobbered by stained-glass restorer Karen (Minnie Driver), who assumes he’s a looter and turns him over to the police. Finally, the bitter local sheriff (Randy Quaid) announces that he wants the money. (Most of this is made abundantly clear by the much-shown trailer. There’s one more development I won’t mention, not because it’s startling but because it’s the only one the preview doesn’t give away.)
Meanwhile, the rain keeps falling, the flood waters keep rising, and the local dam keeps threatening to burst. Although only about half as long, Hard Rain is much soggier than Titanic. Everyone in this film is drenched and frequently on the verge of drowning. Cinematographer-turned-director Mikael Salomon successfully conjures the dark and the damp and sometimes shoots from the vantage point of a man about to be run over by a jet-ski. The effect is creepy and occasionally tense, yet ultimately as generic as the characters’ names.
Perhaps to appeal to the teen crowd, the various bad guys ride jet-skis through the halls of a flooded school and smash speedboats through the windows of a church. Such scenes are lively enough and certainly preferable to the movie’s fairly desperate attempts at comic relief: One of Jim’s associates is a Bible-quoting tough straight out of Pulp Fiction, and the principals keep encountering an elderly couple dominated by a bossy bigmouth (Betty White, no less). The romance between Tom and Karen is even more vestigial, although the script is progressive enough to have her rescue him first. (Equal opportunity retreats, however, when Karen’s given a clear shot at a villain.)
Pitiless water aside, the fundamental links between Hard Rain and Titanic are their unambiguous conflict and reductive dialogue, which make both films ideal for overseas markets. Since many of the lines are uttered as people jump from boats, dodge Molotov cocktails, or dive to rescue someone, dubbing the movie will be a breeze. The words hardly matter anyway. Like James Cameron, Salomon proves an efficient visual storyteller. Now if only either of them had a story to tell. CP