Mountains, monks and mandalas:
'Kundun' and 'Seven Years in Tibet.'

by Mark Abramson


Vol.23 No.3

Summer 1998


Copyright by Cineaste Publishers Inc.

In 1925, cinemas in London's West End were showing the documentary film Epic of Everest. Shot during a recent failed British expedition during which two climbers died near Everest's peak, the film was a paean to the unconquerable "purity" of the Tibetan mountains, in contrast to the "dirt" and queer customs of the Tibetan people. It became the subject of official Tibetan government protests and a cause celebre in Anglo-Tibetan relations not only because of certain "vulgar and indecent" scenes (such as one which portrayed a man delousing a boy and killing the lice between his teeth, leading to the British interpretation that lice were part of the Tibetan diet), but even more so because the screenings were accompanied by a music and dance performance by a troupe of Tibetan monks, referred to in the British popular press as "the dancing lamas." Peter Hansen's excellent article on the subject shows how the British media reacted to the Tibetans with a mix of condescending humor (a sample headline read, "Seven Lamas Come to Town. Escape from Tibet as Bales of Fur"; the monks were also taken to the London Zoo and photographed with the llamas), respect for their mystical religion, sympathy towards these strangers in a strange land, and, most telling, objections that the tawdry display would kill "the romance and mystery of Tibet."(1) Two films released in late 1997, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, are evidence not only of a renewed interest in the United States and Europe in the political, cultural, and ecological plight of Tibet, which has been growing since the Lhasa demonstrations of 1989 and the Dalai Lama's Nobel Prize for Peace in the same year, but also of an ongoing fascination with Tibet as a culture, a religion, and a place within which Western visions can flourish. Unlike previous Hollywood feature films, from Lost Horizon (1937) to The Golden Child (1986), Seven Years and Kundun treat Tibet as a real place, reproduce Tibetan clothing, architecture, and rituals with an impressive degree of versimilitude, and attempt to re-create actual historical events. Although the two films approach their subjects with a great deal of respect - indeed, reverence - and avoid turning Tibetan culture and religion into another display of dancing lamas, they would, I suspect, have been heartily approved of by the British journalists of the 1920s for successfully preserving Tibet's exotic aura. Of the two films, Seven Years in Tibet, directed by Jean Jacques Annaud (Quest For Fire, The Name of the Rose, The Lover) is much more the conventional feature film. It tells the true story of Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) and Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), climbers on a German expedition in the Himalayas who are interned in India at the start of World War II, make their escape to Tibet, and end up living in Lhasa until the Chinese annexation or, in the words of the Chinese, the "liberation" of Tibet in 1950. Based on the Austrian Harrer's memoir of the same title, a rather dry though fascinating account of his adventures and of daily life in Lhasa (mainly in the aristocratic circles he frequented), the film in the hands of Annaud and screenwriter Becky Johnston (Prince of Tides) becomes a story of Harrer's individual redemption. He comes, through his friendships with Aufschnaiter and the young Dalai Lama, to regret his earlier rejections of his family (he abandons his wife and unborn son at the beginning of the film) and comrades. Only after principal photography had been completed was it revealed in Stem that Harter had joined the Nazi SA in 1933 and the SS in 1938. A couple of lines of dialog referring to Harrer as "a distinguished member" of the Nazi Party were then inserted, and there is an implied comparison of the Chinese Communists to the Nazis near the end of the film, but Harrer's development in the film is personal, not political (he has claimed that he joined in order to participate in expeditions such as the one in India, and the film does accurately show that these expeditions were direct expressions of national pride and the belief in German superiority). Indeed, we are led to believe that Harrer undergoes some sort of Buddhist transformation with the help of the Dalai Lama, for the production notes inform us that, "as the deep and abiding bond between these two isolated, lonely people [Harrer and the Dalai Lama] evolved, the selfish and egotistical Harrer experienced selflessness for the first time, allowing him to complete the emotional transformation which began on his way to Lhasa." In turn, the Dalai Lama becomes the son that Harrer yearns to have. Jamyang Wangchuk, the son of a Bhutanese diplomat, does a fine job portraying the adolescent Dalai Lama, but his role is only significant when it depicts the moments when he and Harrer bond emotionally. These scenes occasionally ring a false note, particularly as they suggest unwarrantedly that Harrer became a surrogate father to the Dalai Lama (the Dalai Lama's real father, whom he saw more often but had a more distant relationship with than his mother, is barely shown in the film). Seven Years uses a typical ploy of historical films, and particularly biopics, in giving the central character's personal development more weight by placing him in the center of the historical action. In doing so, the film seriously distorts history. The film egregiously has Harrer remaining in Lhasa after the Chinese occupation, counseling the Dalai Lama on the proper course of action, and even assaulting with impunity a Tibetan collaborator in full view of Chinese soldiers. In reality, Harrer had the good sense to leave Lhasa in the company of the Dalai Lama and his entourage for a spot near the Indian border prior to the Chinese army's arrival. Negotiations between the Chinese and Tibetan governments then ensued, and, after several months, the Dalai Lama was persuaded to accept the Seventeen-Point Agreement signed by his envoys in Beijing (not, as Seven Years would have us believe, in Tibet) and returned to Lhasa. By this point, Harrer (and Aufschnaiter) were long gone. The few Westerners who were living in Tibet (and whose existence, despite their arguably greater significance in Tibetan society compared to Harter and Aufschnaiter, is denied in Seven Years) and did have the courage, and foolhardiness, to remain in Tibet, were arrested as imperialist spies and subjected to brainwashing and long prison terms. Even more troubling, however, though not surprising, is the overall reduction of Tibetans and Tibetan culture to a mix of stereotypes and simplifications which mostly serve to provide an exotic background to Pitt's portrayal of Harrer's emotional growth. This does a disservice to the book, which completely lacks the navel-gazing emotionalism of the movie, and to Harrer himself, who is caricatured as an ignorant boor at the beginning of the film in order to make his transformation all the more dramatic. For example, Harrer had studied Hindustani, Japanese, and Tibetan prior to his escape from the internment camp, whereas in the film he is unable to speak any Tibetan and has to be bailed out by Aufschnaiter. The two main adult Tibetan characters, the minister Tsarong (Mako) who befriends Harrer and Aufschnaiter, and the secretary who becomes a minister, Ngawang Jigme (B.D. Wong), who surrenders a vital Tibetan stronghold and then collaborates with the Chinese, are both historical figures given one-dimensional, symbolic roles. Tsarong is the noble elder who dispenses advice, hangs around looking distinguished, and allows the audience, ignorant of the fact that Harter and Aufschnaiter were not the only foreigners in Lhasa, to accept their rapid metamorphosis from begrimed vagabonds to the toast of Lhasa high society. Jigme, who is still alive and living in Beijing (though currently extremely ill), was in reality an extremely complex character. He is still despised as the Tibetan Benedict Arnold, even though his initial surrender seems to have been the result of cowardice and confusion rather than treason, but over the years he has also become an object of some sympathy and even admiration for trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of Chinese rule at the cost of his dignity and reputation. In the film, however, B.D. Wong plays him as a sinister and effete courtier whose mannerisms seems more than coincidentally reminiscent of his earlier Broadway role in M. Butterfly. His evident hatred of the Tibetan secular and religious leadership, resulting from his overweening ambitions and feelings of exclusion from the aristocratic inner circle (the screenplay only hints at this), is apparently supposed to prefigure and mirror the Chinese communists' own revulsion toward the traditional Tibetan hierarchy and the values it represents. Mao's famous remark to the Dalai Lama, "Religion is poison", is placed as a throwaway line in the mouth of a Chinese general in Seven Years in order to reinforce the point. Neither Seven Years nor Kundun show the exploitative, regressive, and ultimately self-defeating nature of the dual religious and secular hierarchies which governed Tibet. In fact, the current Dalai Lama's predecessor had been forced by conservative elements who feared losing their own hereditary prerogatives and local power bases into repealing nascent military, tax, land, and infrastructure reforms which had begun the modernization of Tibet and contributed to the defeat of a Chinese invasion in 1917-18. Yet, the greatest disservice of Seven Years is its caricaturing of the role of Buddhism in Tibetan society. Not only does virtually every speaking Tibetan character in the film dispense nuggets of enlightened philosophy along the lines of "You Westerners prize achievement, we in Tibet value harmony," but there are several occasions when Tibetan nonviolence, meeting Western audience expectations, is taken to ludicrous extremes. In an insightful article, the Tibetan scholar Jamyang Norbu lambastes a scene where Tibetan workers and monks rescue earthworms from the site of the movie theatre Harrer is building for the Dalai Lama ("In past life, this innocent worm was your mother. Please, no more hurting!") as one that Tibetan viewers would find ridiculous. Later, Tibetan soldiers, who were in actuality equipped with rifles, are shown using bows and arrows against Chinese troops.(2) Prior to their arrival in Lhasa, Harrer and Aufschnaiter are robbed, taken hostage, and almost killed by bandits, but somehow these bandits don't register as being 'real' Tibetans. They are certainly not identified with the pathetic Tibetan army in the film, though in fact such tribesmen did serve in the Tibetan army (and, initially, the Chinese army - they didn't like the high taxes levied by the government in Lhasa and were taken in by Chinese good behavior and promises of income redistribution in the early stages of the takeover) and were the core of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese in the 1950s and early 1960s. Ironically, while Seven Years provides a much richer re-creation of Tibetan life than Kundun (which is restricted to the viewpoint of the Dalai Lama and mainly shows us his two residences), the script intentionally subverts the impressive authenticity of the art direction in order not to upset the sympathetic yet unrealistic views of Tibet that predominate in the West. Many scholars and some voices in the popular media have begun to point out, if not directly challenge, Western myths of Tibet. The Western fascination with Tibet can be traced back to the medieval European belief in a Central Asian kingdom ruled by the Christian king Prester John which would roll back the expansion of Islam. Western travelers to Tibet from the seventeenth century on have remarked on the piety of the Tibetan people and the power of the Buddhist church, but the stereotype of Tibet did not remain static. During the 1904 British expedition into Tibet under Younghusband (aimed to force the Tibetans to sign a treaty and forestall the perceived threat of Russian expansion into Central Asia), the Tibetans were portrayed as ignorant, dirty, and fanatical, a depiction which was still evident in Epic of Everest twenty years later. Norbu's article points out the similarity of this rhetoric to that of the Chinese a half-century later, all designed to justify the invasion of a peaceful country. Once Tibet was properly subservient to British interests, however, and became increasingly isolated and non-threatening, its image as an alpine haven of nonviolence and spirituality became increasingly fixed until it was 'fossilized' by James Hilton's novel The Lost Horizon (1933). A recent broadcast on the PBS documentary program Frontline was devoted to Western views of Tibet and the making of Seven Years and Kundun.(3) Though the show was largely a rehash of American foreign policy towards Tibet and China and a discussion of the political pressure that China put on the companies which financed the two films, it did contain quotes by two celebrities noted for their association with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism which indicate that little has changed in the West's perceptions of Tibet in the last sixty years. Richard Gere: "The West is very young. We're not very wise. And I think we're hopeful that there is a place that is ancient and wise and open and filled with light." Steven Seagal (who has been recognized as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama): "For me, in Buddhism there are specific teachings that address a lot of the tremendous hardships and dilemmas and poisons that we face in modern-day society." While Gere's comment borders on the ridiculous - Western culture is ultimately rooted in the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, which predate all other comparable civilizations - Seagal's remark is reasonable but could be uttered by any practicing religionist today about his or her own faith. Yet, they point to the important aspects of the position Tibet holds in the Western imagination today - as a religion and culture of immense spirituality and ancient wisdom and as a place and people whose chief attribute is their perpetuation of a premodern, preindustrial, preconsumer and nonviolent ethos and way of life. Tibet in Seven Years is another version of the Sioux homeland in Dances With Wolves or the world of the superior aliens in Contact, a cinematic Club Med, the antidote to civilization and its discontents. Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Stallion), is a vastly different film from Seven Years. It is, by current Hollywood standards, narratively unconventional. It avoids the simplistic portrayal of Tibet and pandering towards popular Western audience tastes and expectations that characterizes Seven Years. Moreover, it is one of those rare films which successfully unites form and content. These characteristics are both the film's great strength and, if we wish to take the film, as many critics and viewers have, as wanting to say something meaningful about Tibet, its great weakness. Kundun follows in its sequence of events the Dalai Lama's own autobiography, My Land and My People (though, as the production notes inform us, the screenplay is based largely on his "personal revelations" to Mathison) from his discovery in 1937 at the age of two as the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama to his flight from Lhasa in 1959 and the beginning of his period of exile which has extended up to the present. The film is thus an authorized autobiography, told exclusively from the perspective of the Dalai Lama as portrayed by four different actors. Therefore, while political events, largely those dealing with the looming Sino-Tibetan crisis, are explained (often simplistically) to the Dalai Lama, and thus to the audience, the incredibly rich depictions of ceremonies, rituals, and the lives of Tibetan monks which are contained in the film are, as part of the fabric of the Dalai Lama's own upbringing, left unexplained. This technique is similar to the tradition of narrationless ethnographic filmmaking which includes Frederick Wiseman's documentaries and, more recently, Ulrike Ottinger's monumental documentary on Mongolia, Taiga (1993). It is even more reminiscent of the Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang's Horse Thief (1988), a film set in pre-1949 Tibet and told from a single perspective with a large number of unexplained rituals and other cultural details. While it was criticized in China for obscurantism and its allegedly negative portrayal of Tibetan society as "primitive" and "superstitious," it has been widely admired in the West for its cinematic technique and attention to detail. In a recent interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, Scorsese accorded high praise to recent Chinese films, but singled out only one film - Horse Thief. While some key recurring symbols and rituals in Kundun are somewhat accessible to the audience, such as the disappearing sand mandala and the Nechung oracle, other important elements defy interpretation to all except the best informed viewers. To give one example, the dance performance outside the Potala witnessed by the Dalai Lama is actually satirizing the Nechung oracle. This scene gives a whole new understanding of the role of prophecy in the film (which is significant) and adds a different dimension to Tibetan Buddhism, which, in both films, is rather solemnized and sanitized, but here it comes across to the typical viewer as merely added spectacle. In fact, the theme which most closely unites both Kundun and Seven Years with the popular Western image of Tibet is an unquestioning awe of and respect for Tibetan Buddhism as exemplified in the figure of the Dalai Lama. Seven Years is nothing but reverential in its depiction of Buddhism, while Kundun is a virtual hagiography of the Dalai Lama, who is presented as evolving into a Buddhist exemplar. In the interviews and press materials assembled for the two films, the participants routinely cite their admiration of Tibetan culture and religion, as well as of the Dalai Lama himself. Scorsese, in an interview with Amy Taubin in Sight and Sound, effused: "I think he [the Dalai Lama] behaves the way we all should behave. And then I met him with Melissa [Mathison], and what happens is that you want to be like him. And I don't find that with many clerics in my own religion." Mathison herself has said about the reading of the script with the Dalai Lama that "it was such a special time for me, for God's sake. I think he [the Dalai Lama] enjoyed it, but for my husband [Harrison Ford] and me, it was truly one of the great times of our life."(4) The close involvement of the production with prominent members of the Tibetan government-in-exile and official religious and cultural institutions, not to mention "the cooperation and contribution of His Holiness the Dalai Lama," indicate that Kundun, in addition to its artistic aspirations, is helping to burnish the image of the Dalai Lama and the official Tibetan government line. This is particularly significant in light of the fact that tensions within the Tibetan exile community over the lack of any alternative to the Dalai Lama's domination of the organs of government, the power exercised by the Dalai Lama's family and intimates, disputes between the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the image of Tibet projected by the Dalai Lama, have flared up in recent years in political splits, breakaway sects, and even political killings. An increasing number of Tibetans, while continuing to respect the Dalai Lama, are critical of the exclusively nonviolent tactics used in the struggle for independence. For these reasons, many Tibetans have dismissed Kundun as propaganda. It is not my intention to argue that the Dalai Lama is not an extraordinarily charismatic and profoundly moral individual, nor that Tibetan Buddhism, like all of the world's religions, expresses profound truths and reflects rich cultural traditions. Yet, I wish to point out the extremely narrow picture of Tibet one gets from the two films, and the fact that such a narrow picture merely plays into the current Western fascination with Tibet, a fascination that is based on an image of the exotic and fantastic and rooted in ignorance. In 1949 a Tibetan trade delegation to the West was shocked at how little the world knew about their country, and one recalled in amazement that, "Some people thought all Tibetans lived either in tents or in monasteries."(5) Little has changed. While this fascination has translated into an ever growing sympathy for the Tibetan position vis-a-vis China, as Jamyang Norbu noted on Frontline, "It's a fuzzy kind of sympathy because it never touches on the reality." This may seem to be a petty criticism - are films ever able to truly represent a culture, a religion, or a people? The problem is that these films do not challenge in any way the dominant representation of Tibetans which Norbu and an increasing number of Tibetans and Westerners see as ultimately detrimental to the Tibetan cause. Even within the narrow frame adopted by both films of Tibetans as primarily nonviolent, premodern Buddhists, they both emphasize spectacle over substance and cliches over profundity. This is not so noticeable in Seven Years, where we are expected to attend more to Brad Pitt than to any Tibetan, but in Kundun these gaps are more glaring. The Buddhist education of the Dalai Lama, which in actuality was at the core of his evolution from childhood to adulthood in the years portrayed in the film, is given short shrift. Only one scene really shows the process of his instruction, and it fails to convey the wonderfully complex yet accessible metaphysics of which the Dalai Lama is an acknowledged master. Rather, Kundun is an intensely visual film, eschewing words for images. Scorsese is to be applauded for making such an expressive and, indeed, pure film, given the temptation when making a biopic to preach, as in Gandhi, and, to a certain extent, Seven Years. He risks incomprehensibility in order to portray the impressionistic, emotional, and unreliable tesserae of a child and young adult's memories. This approach reaches a crescendo in the last half hour of the film when the events of the flight to India in 1959 merge seamlessly with memories, dreams, and mindscapes/visions. We witness the Dalai Lama's own awakening to the unity of time and space and his paradoxical appreciation both of the value of all living forms as well as their ultimate emptiness. Whether or not viewers are able to make all of these connections, they certainly feel the emotional power of the images and music (by Philip Glass, a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama) which lyrically juxtapose order and chaos, peace and war, frustration and resignation, denial and acceptance. Yet, Kundun ultimately does not go beyond the popular images purveyed in the press and, now, increasingly, on the Internet. A random search for Tibet-related items repeatedly turned up phrases such as, "Tibet, the very name evokes feelings of awe and mystery...[it] offers a totally different is the destination for the ultimate thrill seeker,"(6) and "Exotic sights and sounds from Tibet."(7) Even the introductory title for Kundun speaks of a "thousand years of nonviolence" in Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion, an absurd claim to be made about any country's history, including Tibet's. While neither of the films deserves to be saddled with the label of "Tibetan chic," both Seven Years, because it is only partially about Tibet at all, and Kundun, because it transcends its subject to become a cinematic meditation on memory and transcendence, fail to render Tibet as a real place with a history of its own. The mystery and romance live on. End Notes: 1 Peter H. Hansen, "The Dancing Lamas of Everest: Cinema, Orientalism, and Anglo-Tibetan Relations in the 1920s," The American Historical Review 101.3 (June 1996): 712-747. 2 Jamyang Norbu, "Tibet in film, fiction and fantasy of the West," Tibetan Review (January 1998): 18-23. 3 "Dreams of Tibet: A Troubled Country and Its Enduring Fascination," Frontline (October 28, 1997). 4 Susan Bullington Katz, "A Conversation With... Melissa Mathison," Written By (December/January 1998): 59-64. 5 Michael Harris Goodman, The Last Dalai Lama: A Biography (Boston: Shambhala, 1986), 146. 6 Travellers' Nepal, 3.6 (July-August 1997). 7 Arts Letter (Fall 1996). Marc Abramson is a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese and Inner Asian History at Princeton University