"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Little Buddha

May 25, 1994

LITTLE BUDDHA is a film by Bernardo Bertolucci, so I always assumed it was highly respected. Maybe I confused it with THE LAST EMPEROR, his 1987 film that won best picture and eight other Oscars. This one only got decent reviews and one Razzie nomination.

It’s the very earnest story of some friendly Tibetan Buddhist monks who come to Seattle because they believe a 9-year-old blond kid named Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger, “Child,” THE NUTCRACKER) might be the reincarnation of their teacher, Lama Dorje. It’s also the story of Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves, last seen five days earlier in EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES) in gorgeously shot sequences interspersed throughout as Jesse hears about him.

I guess the monks settled on Jesse as a candidate because of when he was born? A teacher at his school, Kenpo Tenzin (Sogyal Rinpoche), is a Buddhist monk who teaches math and astrology at Jesse’s school (I know, weird, but that’s what he said), and he approaches his mother Lisa (Bridget Fonda, DOC HOLLYWOOD, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, ARMY OF DARKNESS) one day when she’s picking him up from school, is very friendly but odd, she clearly doesn’t know what to make of it. Later he shows up at her doorstep, introduces Lama Norbu (Ruocheng Ying, also in THE LAST EMPEROR) and explains that he flew in from Bhutan.

For me this is the most interesting part of the movie, this awkward situation that some people from another country and religion need to approach this random family and explain that they believe their kid might be a spiritual leader. Lisa takes it amazingly well – even before she knows what they want she’s friendly, invites them in, recognizes that this is weird but that it might be fun and interesting to talk to these guys. And then she’s kind of open to the idea of reincarnation, and maybe even to the idea that her son is a Lama. She’s more amused by the idea than believing in it, but she does read Jesse the Buddhist storybooks the monks leave for him.

Lisa’s famous architect husband Dean (Chris Isaak, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME) has more of a “What the fuck is this?” reaction when he comes home and finds two monks sitting cross-legged on his floor. As he learns what they want and brings Jesse to see them at the Dharma Center he has a little bit of a sense of humor about it, but it mostly seems to exhaust him. And when they tell him they’d like Jesse to come to Nepal to be evaluated by other monks he starts to get angry. “In this country we call that kidnapping” he says.

But after the suicide of his business partner he starts seeing everything differently. To Lisa’s surprise he decides to go to Kathmandu with Jesse himself. The downside of this turn in the story is that Fonda isn’t in the movie as much after this, the upside is that Isaak’s character becomes more interesting. He realizes that helping out these monks and supporting his son (who loves the monks and seems up for the adventure) may also help him with his own questions about life and death.

In Kathmandu Jesse becomes instant friends with two Nepalese kids, Raju (Raju Lal) and Gita (Greishma Makar Singh) who also might be the reincarnated Lama. Well, there’s a little conflict when Gita tells a legend about her grandfather being eaten by a tiger and the boys make fun of the story. But mostly they run around holding hands, learn lessons, at one point seem to witness scenes from the Siddartha portion of the movie with their own eyes.

I found those scenes less dramatic than the present day stuff, but more beautiful. Because they’re told like a legend they’re able to have magical elements like baby Siddartha being able to walk and talk immediately after birth, flowers growing in his footsteps, later a giant cobra rising up over his head to shield him from rain while he meditates. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, APOCALYPSE NOW, TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM, DICK TRACY) shot those segments on 65 mm. They often look warm and golden, and sometimes composed like paintings. It’s the first of four movies where James Acheson acted as production designer – he mostly worked as a costume designer on everything from TIME BANDITS to HIGHLANDER to MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (and later SPIDER-MAN 1, 2 and 3, DAREDEVIL, THE WARRIOR’S WAY and MAN OF STEEL).

For me LITTLE BUDDHA feels a little too simple. The “telling the story of Siddhartha” structure made it feel to me like Bertolucci discovered Buddhism and wanted to make a Buddhism 101 outreach film. Roger Ebert called it “Buddhist Sunday school,” and a friend told me that when it played at the Seattle International Film Festival Bertolucci said he wanted to make “a Buddhist film for children.” It leans more on that than the very interesting situation this family is in, something an opening title tells us was based on several real cases.

Then again Lama Norbu is so likable, and it’s interesting to watch his gentle, humorous interactions with both his students and the skeptical Dean Conrad. And there are amazing locations, both fantastical and real, and I do find that stuff interesting if basic. Also the kids are funny together – Jesse being completely unfazed by the drastic change in surroundings, Raju being excited to wear his A’s cap. I also appreciate Bertolucci’s attention to dropping in little references to the occupation of Tibet and the fact that these monks live in exile, a reminder that I’m only vaguely aware of that stuff and should learn more. Also it’s a nice idea at the end that (spoiler) Lam Norbu has died and now Lisa is pregnant and you know what that could mean in their belief system. For my part, I just like the idea that without buying that Norbu’s teacher was reincarnated as these three kids, we can see how Norbu himself lives on in their memories and the influence he had on them. And notice how as a bowl of his ashes float across the Puget Sound our view of the Seattle skyline changes from the blues we’ve been seeing the city in to the warmer colors of the overseas sequences.

So yeah, I kinda like this movie. It’s sweet.

One mistaken impression I had before seeing LITTLE BUDDHA was that Keanu would play the grown up version of the kid they think is a reincarnation. Nope, he plays Siddartha on his path from sheltered prince to enlightenment, and it was hard for many to accept the man they knew from the BILL & TED movies as a religious figure from another culture. Some actors you can accept transforming themselves but in those days, for many, Reeves was not one of those actors, so you hear him do an accent and see him with eye makeup (and possibly bronzer) and your mind won’t take him seriously, regardless of your thoughts on what ethnicity can be cast in what role (a concern that did exist back then, but not nearly to the extent it does now).

For those reasons it may have been a mistake to cast him in this role, but also I kind of like him in this role. It’s mostly physical, and when it’s verbal I think his style of acting in those days actually fits really well with the naivety and then serenity that’s required. We also now have the retrospective quality that we’ve long revered Reeves in the role of Neo so why not also as the Buddha?

In fact, the thing that most struck me about his part was in his first scene, enthusiastically playing an ancient sport, he already demonstrates a really unique physicality I didn’t realize he had until THE MATRIX. And seeing him with long hair, no shirt, moving around lankily he really looks like Chad Stahelski doubling Brandon Lee in THE CROW, just with a little less muscle. So it makes sense Stahelski would soon be his double. It’s all coming together.

If there’s a performance that’s too stiff it’s Isaak, so I can’t get too mad at the assholes from the Razzies nominating him for “Worst New Star.” The joke’s on them though since he had been a “star” for singing since 1985 and had already been in movies in 1988, 1991 and 1992. (He was nominated against fellow new stars Jim Carrey, Chris Elliott and Shaquille O’Neal, but it went to Anna Nicole Smith.)

Also, it now occurs to me that I’m impressed they didn’t nominate Keanu!

There are three people in the movie who are considered real reincarnations of lamas. The Venerable Khyongla Rato Rinpoche plays the Abbott at the monastery in Bhutan, and Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche is in a scene and supervised the filming of the rituals. He was the subject of the documentary WORDS OF MY PERFECT TEACHER, which I wrote about in Seagalogy, since Seagal was in it a little.

The third is real life teacher and author Sogyal Rinpoche, who plays the lovable teacher from Jesse’s school at the beginning. Sorry to bring this up, but later that same year a lawsuit was filed accusing him of abusing his position to coerce one of his female students into having sex with him, the beginning of a long ongoing scandal with many other accusers and allegations, from more abuse to using donations to fund a lavish lifestyle. To me Buddhism seems like a more appealing religion than some of the others, but you get shit like this in any power structure, I guess.

That guy wasn’t really teaching in Seattle, though. We’re innocent! On a more positive note, LITTLE BUDDHA was very strong in the “I know that place” department for me. I’m not sure why I never watched it before – I knew it was a Seattle movie because I’ve heard legends of Fonda (who also filmed SINGLES here), Storaro and Bertolucci renting from Scarecrow Video while they were staying in town. Now I know that the Conrads live in a fancy-ass house that’s right up the hill from me, where the rich people live. At the time there was a Tower Records and Video in the neighborhood but the story is they wouldn’t rent to Bertolucci because he didn’t have a driver’s license.

There’s some driving through downtown on I-5 (switching directions at least once), a scene set on the monorail (also switching directions and, as usual, pretending it’s longer than a 90 second ride), a scene at the Seattle Art Museum (good shot of Hammering Man as they enter) and some nice views from Queen Anne hill and the Yesler Way overpass. I didn’t recognize it, but the Dharma Center is a real Buddhist center in Greenwood called Sakya Monastery. It was originally built as a Presbyterian church, hence Jesse saying “It looks like a church.”

One thing I’m noticing in this review series so far is that modern high definition releases have a blindspot for some of the films of 1994. Even ones that have Keanu Reeves in them! Both EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES and LITTLE BUDDHA are currently unstreamable and unreleased on blu-ray. Strange for movies by such notable directors. LITTLE BUDDHA’s DVD is so old the credits look pixelated. But hey – I’m okay with it. Contentment is the greatest wealth.

* * *
Other notable credits:

The screenplay of LITTLE BUDDHA is credited to Rudy Wurlitzer (Jim McBride’s GLEN AND RANDA, Monte Hellman’s TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, Alex Cox’s WALKER) and Mark Peploe (Jaques Demy’s THE PIED PIPER, Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER, Bertolucci’s THE LAST EMPEROR and THE SHELTERING SKY) – damn, those guys have worked with some serious directors! The score is by the great Ryuichi Sakamoto (MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE) – more traditional than some of his other compositions, but good. Editor Pietro Scalia had won an Oscar for JFK, and would soon have the far more impressive achievement of editing THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. In the years since he’s done 11 Ridley Scott films, and his most recent credit is Michael Mann’s FERRARI.

Dated aspects:

The casting of Reeves would likely be called brownface now, and they wouldn’t do it. There are a couple goofy digital effects from those days when they were just trying them out and didn’t care how out of place they’d look later. Not that many, though.


Not much that I’m aware of, but the kid reminds me of little Ani in THE PHANTOM MENACE, and I genuinely wonder if George Lucas thought about LITTLE BUDDHA at all while creating his story about a 9-year-old boy that a monk thinks might be the chosen one and convinces his mother to let him fly off to far away lands and join a religious order she knows little about. Seems likely he saw it.



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6 Responses to “Little Buddha”

  1. I was kind of warned this was ‘Siddhartha 4 Dummies’ or whatever, but was I going to NOT see a Bertolucci/Storaro movie in the theater?

    My ass may be dumb…

  2. I’ll defend Keanu casting even if it’s today because he has an aura befitting a fairy tale treatment. Sometimes exceptions are a thing.

    Also this reminds me of the days when Hollywood was making these passion projects about Tibet which coincidentally went away when Hollywood didn’t want to alienate the Chinese government censors.

  3. I’m not sure how much weight my pasty arse white boy opinion carries but I always thought Keanu’s whole ethnically ambiguous (He’s what, Chinese/Hawaiian/British/?) got him a pass on this kinda casting.

  4. I still think it would be frowned upon now, but I left a little wiggle room in there for that reason.

  5. If Buddhist monks from Tibet can earnestly believe their teacher was reincarnated as a caucasian boy, then most Buddhists were probably okay with Keanu being cast as the Buddha. Jesus wasn’t white, but there has been a long-running history of caucasian actors portraying the Christ to this day. Not saying it’s right or wrong, just that these stories cater to their audiences.

  6. I know the Sakya Monastery. NE Seattle was my hood growing up.

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