This article appeared in Issue 26 ofAsian Cult Cinema
In 1862, Anna Leonowens, the widow of a British officer, left her home in India to take up residence in the Kingdom of Siam (now modern-day Thailand), where she was hired by the reigning monarch, King Mongkut, to act as governess for his numerous wives and children. With her son Louis at her side, Anna drew upon her British heritage and teaching experience to bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the King and his royal court. Her efforts have been credited to paving the way for the numerous social reforms that were instituted by King Chulalongkorn, Mongkut's son, upon his ascension to the throne in 1873, which included the abolishment of slavery. After spending five years in Siam, Anna settled for a few years in the United States, where she turned to writing, authoring her two famous accounts of life in the Siamese court, "The English Governess at the Siamese Court" and "The Romance of the Harem". She finally took up residence in Canada, where among other accomplishments, she founded the Victoria School of Art (now known as the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), before passing away in Montreal in 1915. Or so it is thought.
The way of England is the way of the world!
The story of Anna Leonowens, her relationship to King Mongkut, and her published recollections have stirred much controversy over the years. Historical scholars, having delved into the life of the famous British governess, have uncovered a glaring number of inaccuracies in her books and the statements she made about her life. For example, though she was married to a man named Thomas Leon Owens, he was not an officer in the British Army; instead, he was a clerk who held a number of odd jobs, including that of 'hotel keeper' at the time of his death. Her position within King Mongkut's court is also in dispute, as she was hired merely as a teacher of English, instead of the more prominent position of governess. Her influence on royal affairs was also similarly exaggerated, as she was relatively unknown among the small circle of British consular officials in Bangkok, despite her alleged position within the royal court. Her books have also been scrutinized for their lack of historical accuracy, as she writes of events that have been disputed by cultural historians familiar with nineteenth century Siam. For example, in "The Romance of the Harem", Anna makes reference to underground dungeons in the royal palace where uncooperative concubines were imprisoned, and an eyewitness account of a public execution involving one of the King's concubines and her lover-- both of which have been viewed as 'sensationalist fiction' purely aimed at increasing the sales of her books.
Despite the controversy surrounding her, the story of Anna and King Mongkut has caught the imagination of the public several times over the last five decades. Anna's books were popularized in 1944 by Margaret Langdon's novelization "Anna and the King of Siam", which was promptly made into a film of the same name two years later, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. This then brought about the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical "The King and I", which gave Yul Brynner his most recognizable film role. Earlier this year, "The King and I" was itself reworked into a tepid animated musical that suffered from horrid animation and audience indifference. Not surprisingly, throughout its various incarnations, each retelling of Anna's story has been associated with cries of protest, particularly from those of Thai ancestry, who denigrate the memoirs of Anna for their inaccurate, ethnocentric, and sometimes racist depiction of the Thai people and their social mores. For example, since its 1956 release, "The King and I" has been banned in Thailand. Similarly, the arrival of the animated version of that film earlier this year was greeted with protests from a number of Thai interest groups, such as the boisterous call to boycott the film by the Thai Students Association at the University of Michigan.
And now, at the close of 1999, another storm of controversy is brewing with the release of the fourth film on the topic. This time, "Anna and the King" is a live action 'epic romance' based on 'the diaries of Anna Leonowens', and was embroiled in controversy even prior to production, when the Thai government refused to allow filming in their country despite three script changes. This latest version pairs Jodie Foster ("Contact"), one of the most accomplished actresses working in Hollywood today, with Chow Yun-Fat, the transplanted Hong Kong actor whose stateside success has so far remained elusive. And while it is difficult to view the film as a purveyor of historical accuracy, the measured performances of its two leads make "Anna and the King" an entertaining, and sometimes even engaging, East meets West drama.
I suppose that if he wishes his son to be tutored in the ways of the West, then we should be honored.
"Anna and the King" begins with the arrival of Anna Leonowens (Foster) and her son Louis (Tom Felton) in Siam, where she has been hired to tutor the King's eldest son (Keith Chin). However, Anna's assertive demeanor and outspokenness quickly put her at odds with the members of the royal court, who view the new arrival as stepping beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior, both as a foreigner and as a woman. However, King Mongkut (Chow), impressed by the brashness of his son's new tutor, soon has Anna tutoring all fifty-eight of his children, as well as some of his wives.
She believes herself the equal of a man.
No... the equal of a King!
As the bond between Anna and the King grows closer with each passing day, they each begin to reshape their perceptions about each other. Anna begins to see the King as a benevolent and compassionate leader caught between thousands of years of tradition and the inevitability of progress, while the King begins to see the seemingly impetuous Anna as a conduit for helping Siam and its monarchy take its place in a rapidly-changing world. Unfortunately, a number of incidents threaten to derail the relationship between Anna and the King, including Anna's critical position on slavery within the Kingdom of Siam, the fate of a young woman (Bai Ling of "Wild Wild West") torn from her true love to serve as King Mongkut's newest wife, and a xenophobic political movement within Mongkut's own government that could lead to war with neighboring Burma, a British protectorate.
These people do not see the world as it is... they see it as they are.
This time around, the man behind the camera is Andy Tennant, who successfully updated the Cinderella story in 1998's "Ever After". For the most part, Tennant recreates the grandeur of the exotic adventure yarns of Hollywood's golden age, with lavish production design and impressive cinematography, despite being saddled with a script that relies on too many shots of cute kids to evoke audience sympathy. However, Tennant's technical and artistic prowess pales in comparison to the performances delivered by Foster and Chow, who carry the film with their uncommon chemistry.
Foster, who took home a $15 million paycheck for her efforts, is well suited to portraying the British teacher. In addition to sporting an impeccable Victorian accent, Foster faithfully portrays Anna as an self-assured woman who finds her rigid view of the world challenged by her new experiences, yet remains steadfast to her moral convictions that transcend borders and culture. As she has done with her numerous film roles throughout the years, Foster gives her character a charismatic life of its own.
However, the film's most encouraging performance would have to go to Chow, who has finally found a role worthy of his acting talent. For his first two North American film roles ("The Replacement Killers" and "The Corruptor"), Chow was pigeonholed into the crime-drama genre that established him in the pantheon of Hong Kong action heroes. Unfortunately, both films were short on character development and story, leaving only Chow's remarkable screen presence to carry the day. In this latest role, Chow not only radiates charisma, but he is able to convey the stately, compassionate, and conflicting sides of King Mongkut. By far, it is in "Anna and the King" that Chow delivers his most balanced and versatile performance yet in a Western film. Perhaps now North American audiences will recognize him for the versatile actor that he is.
If there is anything to complain about in "Anna and the King" (other than the veracity of the source material that it is based upon), it would be that the screenplay by Steve Meerson (who also happened to have written "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home") is too ambitious in its scope. The film covers a lot of ground in its two-and-a-half hour running time, including political intrigue among the King's generals, and it ends up sacrificing the amount of time devoted to exploring the Anna and King Mongkut relationship, a romance that simmers uneasily beneath the surface. Also lost in the shuffle is the positive influence that Anna has on Chulalongkorn, which could have used more fleshing out, as it becomes central to the film's treatise. Had the script curtailed its excursions into adventure territory (which it overdoes in the film's climactic finale), "Anna and the King" probably would have been a much more enriching and emotionally-resonant experience.
Though "Anna and the King" should not be viewed as a product of careful historical fact-finding, it is still an impressive costume drama that concerns itself with the clash of cultures and the difficulties of balancing tradition with progress. Bolstered by two striking performances, the always reliable Jodie Foster and celebrated Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat, "Anna and the King" is a fanciful and luxuriant offering for the holiday movie-going season.