movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


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Anna and the King
Anna and the King marks the fourth film version of Anna Leonowens' diaries, including an animated version of The King and I from a year ago. In this new version of a familiar tale, director Andy Tennant has enlivened the material with a fresh approach--as he did when he gave the Cinderella story a postfeminist, class-conscious spin in Ever After (1998).

Much of the production's pre-release publicity discussed the Thai people's disdain for Yul Brynner's "classic" portrayal of their beloved King Mongkut. The Thai government's distrust of Hollywood forced the production to film in Malaysia rather than Thailand. However, for this new version of the story, the filmmakers committed themselves to depicting the Asian perspective.

This change in focus is evident from the film's opening narration by an unidentified Siamese character who describes Anna's arrival in Siam. Instead of recording Anna's understanding of Siam and its monarch (as happened in The King and I) and how she transformed a king and his country, this film is more interested in watching Anna's personal transformation. In this postcolonial film, we witness a woman who arrives armed with her Britishness and who learns the fallacies of her culture and her own moral superiority.

In Anna and the King, we also witness the full force of Chow Yun-Fat's star power as the King, qualities of which Asian audiences are well aware, but Western audiences barely glimpsed in his previous English-speaking films, The Replacement Killers (1998) and The Corruptor (1999). Yun-Fat commands the screen as a king should, but with humor, warmth and subtlety. The supporting Siamese characters are intricately and powerfully played by other Chinese or Malaysian actors; the key political subplot does not need a Western interloper for the audience to care or understand.

In describing this radical move, I am also indirectly critiquing films like The Killing Fields, Schindlerís List, Seven Years in Tibet, Amistad, and The King and I that depend on Western "witnesses" to present the viewpoint of non-Western people. For example, while playing Anna in The King and I, Deborah Kerr appeared in every single scene; however, while playing Anna in Anna and the King, Jodie Foster is absent in several key scenes that take place solely between Siamese characters. The filmmakers display confidence that these characters and actors do not need Fosterís reactions to be accepted or understood. While The King and I focused more on Annaís role as teacher--both with the King's children and with the King himself--Yun-Fatís King does not need the naÔve Anna to be his teacher. Though Fosterís Anna must also prepare the Siamese court for a Western-style banquet, they adapt to the new customs with grace.

In this postcolonial retelling of the relationship between the English teacher Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut, the film does not make the common mistake of overvaluing or mystifying Eastern culture. The Siamese are not portrayed as "inscrutable" or "mysterious" or innately superior. Though the minor English characters are shown as treacherous and hypocritical, treachery also exists within Siamese culture--and is revealed to Mongkut by a self-serving English merchant. Buddhism is portrayed neither as pagan superstitions (as in the earlier movies) nor as more spiritual than Christianity. The respective religions are presented instead as separate paths. The King is shown to be a caring and loving husband to his many wives and concubines, rather than Brynner's vain collector. When Anna' son, Louis (Tom Felton), asks his mother--"Why doesn't Queen Victoria have more than one husband?"--it is less a ridiculous thought than an honest questioning of cultural assumptions.

The subplot of Tuptim, played with tender intelligence by Bai Ling, is also told with amazing complexity. Again Tuptim is separated from her true love when her father presents her to the King. In this film, the lovers are heartbroken but more accepting of the obligations of their culture. The King is portrayed as the kind and considerate lover that the head wife assures Tuptim that he will be. Tuptim is executed for infidelity not because of the King's pride but because of Anna's arrogant proclamation that she can persuade the King to change his mind and spare Tuptim. Mongkut knows that the stability of his country depends on his perceived authority--which must be immune from foreign influence.

What keeps this film from succeeding as a masterful epic is a sense of fragmentation. With so many story lines, no one scene can really stand as the climax or moment of understanding. These various plots are woven together without the grace found in the performances or cinematography. The death of Mongkutís favorite child is too obviously foreshadowed. In addition, the death of this child upstages the more poignant deaths of the movie's more fully-developed characters.

Tuptim's execution is the strongest sequence of the film. Roger Bondelli's editing juxtaposes the public execution of the lovers with Anna praying in her English home and Mongkut praying at a temple. Instead of showing the failure of Siamese culture, Tuptim and Mongkut accept their culture and the consequences of their actions. However, Anna's Bible offers her no solace, and in her frustration she knocks over her tea service: Christianity isn't without value, but it's inappropriate in Siam and leads to destruction.

Tennant creates a beautiful, epic film that provides a background for the human story without overwhelming it. Jodie Foster alternates between the arrogant English woman who demands to be noticed and the vulnerable woman surprised by her own feelings and inadequacy. Though she has the brashness to "think that she is the equal to a King," her Anna is finally revealed to lack the strength and integrity of Mongkut. Like Anna, the audience can't help but be seduced by Chow Yun-Fat's King.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]