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Pet Sins February 2000

Anna and the King (1999)

This is a commentary on the Twentieth Century Fox movie Anna and the King, released on December 17, 1999.

I read the original book by Anna Leonowens. Even though Leonowens' account is already semi-fictional, I don't recall Leonowens ever writing about any romance with the King. Anna and the King, its 1956 predecessor The King and I, the staged musical versions and the 1999 cartoon version of the story all feature a romance between the monarch and the governess. It is the fictional romance which offends Thais more than anything. Yul Brenner's imitation of bad English and chest thumping in the 1956 movie musical does not help either. A contemporary Thai woman says, "The King already had many wives. It is improper to think the King would be in love with any woman not his wife." This perceived insult to the dignity of the king has resulted in all the above films/musicals being banned from Thailand.

Historical inaccuracies aside, pains were taken with "authentic detail" during the construction of a vast, lavish set. Anna and the King is indeed a visually beautiful film to watch. Accurate ethnic portrayals, however, suffer somewhat. Almost no Thai actors were in the main cast. Some cast members were Malay or South/West Asians. Most of the lead roles went to Chinese. Native Thai speakers also noted Chow Yuen Fatt and the other non-Thai actors' enunciation of Thai was heavily accented.

On the plus side, this 1999 release starring Chow Yuen Fatt and Jodie Foster at least features an Asian actor in the lead role, unlike the 1956 movie musical. Chow Yuen Fatt's portrayal of King Mongkut is dignified, cool, and in control. The filmmaker endeavors effort to be PC, charting Anna Leonowens's gradual change from thinking colonialism is right and proper ("India may was well have been England. That's what colonialism is all about") to acknowledging the evils of Western imperialism ("Who are we to claim that the ways of one world is superior to another, seeing that those who made such claims have often done so at the force of gun.").

While Anna is certainly a strong character who wields great influence on the Thai characters, she is not the only character with power. Power is also located in the hands of Asian characters. This saves the movie from degenerating into the typical "great white savior" mode. The King who is just as strong willed as Anna. The Prime Minister is also portrayed as someone wielding control in interactions with Europeans.

When Anna first meets the Prime Minister, she refuses to kneel like the Thais. The Prime Minister speaks to her through an interpreter, and later, when Anna takes issue with his line of personal questioning, he addresses her in English, telling her "In Siam, it is custom to ask personal questions to show POLITENESS". His choice not to speak to her in English even if he could, and choosing to use English only when he pleases, shows an Asian controlling the terms of an exchange with Europeans. During an audience with the Prime Minister, a British merchant asks for water, but the Prime Minister only gives him a withering "don't waste my time" look. Running up against a wall of silence, the merchant quickly spits out his business and leaves. Again, the Asian calls the shots. The Prime Minister's measured, dignified performance gives power to Asians on film in a way that has too seldom been seen.

The film also has a fair distribution of negative and positive Asian and white characters. A Siamese noblewoman is portrayed as cruel, dishonest and spiteful, torturing a slave who tried to buy her freedom, and throwing Anna's ring into a lake after Anna saves the slave. The British merchant is portrayed as lewd, rude and vulgar. He eyeballs the King's concubines up and down at the King's own banquet. He also makes fun of Siam's "superstitious customs" in the presence of the King. His personal mannerisms are twitchy and crass. Even so, the actor's rendition of this white character does not sink to the level of 2-dimensional caricature of Orientals in most US-made films.

Also, what's nice is that this is a romance between a middle-aged couple, not your usual young and beautiful people thing. Jodie Foster clearly shows her wrinkles, and the King is well along in life with many children in tow. Also, the departure from the usual Asian-woman-white-man pairing is a breath of fresh air.

Doing a web search, I notice Anna and the King is not as well-promoted and widely-reviewed as Snow Falling on Cedars. Both movies were reviewed as having superb cinematography. Why? Is it because Anna and the King features an Asian-man-European-woman couple while Snow Falling on Cedars features an Asian-woman-white-man couple?

1999