Anna and the King of Siam

ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (Fox 2000 Pictures)

In the 1870s, Anna Leonowens, a governess to the children of the King of Siam, published two diaries of her unique, yet troubling experiences.  (She never alluded to a romance between herself and the much older king.)  An opponent of slavery, her writings received acclaim in America but were denounced in England as fiction.  An Englishman of title had previously published a glowing account of Siamese slavery, believing its victims to be happy with their plight.  In 1961, an admirer and biographer of King Mongkut also praised the barbaric custom, criticizing Anna heavily.  In 1976, a biographer of Anna’s son, Louis, under contract with Thai-American publishers, dismissed her as a “con artist.”

Truth is surely stranger than fiction.  Anna’s son, Louis returned to Siam as an adult and procured a small harem of his own until he married.

Was it the height of stupidity to attempt a remake of the 1956 Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I?  As it turns out, this is not a musical, and it resembles the former movie only in the bare-bones retelling of Anna Lenowens’ five-year sojourn in 19th-century Siam.

Jodie Foster, who plays the widowed governess, is no deer-caught-in-the-headlights Deborah Kerr.  She’s a virtual bull-in-a-china-shop.  (To be fair, in her diaries Anna described herself as “never well-practiced in patience.”)  Chow Yun-Fat, who plays King Mongkut, is no bald-headed autocrat marching with mathematical precision like Yul Brynner.  What the film might lack, including the former movie’s majestic, emotionally-stirring musical score, is made up for by the incomparably lush cinematography.   (Due to Thailand’s objections regarding the script, it was filmed in Malaysia).  It captures perfectly the colorful, addictive sights of the exotic Far East.

Chow Yun-Fat (“The Corrupter”), a Hong Kong-born actor with over 70 films to his credit, is another reason to see this movie.  His performance as the highly-intelligent Eastern despot is understated and uniquely his own.  He very sublimely plays cat-and-mouse with the British governess, tolerating her excesses, but always a step or two ahead of her.  Over time, they develop an unusually strong attachment.

The film is full of political intrigue.  King Mongkut’s baiting of a major foe while waiting on a bridge about to be blown up is a major highlight.  Is Jodie Foster believable as his love interest?  Viewers will have to decide for themselves.  [C.E. Chambers’ first draft of this critique complained that the waifish Jodie Foster was so thin she looked like she’d been living on a diet of  “twigs and berries.”]

(Rated PG-13: dead bodies hanging from trees; exploding bridge)

(Written by C.E. Chambers and published in The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition, Vol. 22, Number 1198, December 21, 1999.  The preface was published with the critique.)

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