Knocking on Siam's Door
The story of Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam has gone through multiple mutations in 150-plus years. First, there were the diaries of Indian-born British citizen Leonowens (known to be creative, to say the least, about many aspects of her life and story, even her name), recounting her experiences as teacher to the royal children of the King of Siam in the mid-19th century. Then there was Margaret Landon’s 1943 novel (a fictionalized retelling of Leonowens’ diaries), and in the years following there have been three movies (one animated), a Broadway musical, and a short-lived TV series (can you imagine?). Now we have the romantic epic Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster as Leonowens and Chow Yun-Fat as King Mongkut.
Clearly, this is a tale that has captured the imaginations of generations, and each version has its own story to tell about the time in which it was made. This latest interpretation speaks to our need to distance ourselves from the embarrassingly imperialistic tone of some of the earlier versions, but it does so, unfortunately, with a hefty dose of late 20th-century liberalism. In this framework, good white liberals will side with the victims of imperialism, but will also remain the center of the world and the story.
Jodie Foster has said in interviews about Anna and the King that this film is different because it shows “Asia” from an “Asian perspective,” while earlier renderings of the story only cared about Europeans. I would counter that this film is quite concerned with Europeans (or more precisely, white audience stand-ins). In other words, it has made the story more palatable to our 1990s tastes by making Anna flawed (ignorant of local customs and arrogant about her own claim to civilization) and by making gestures toward re-thinking colonial imperialism. When the King’s son laments to his Father, “Why do you punish me with Imperialist school teacher?”, it’s funny now, because we know the downside to put it mildly of imperialism. We also know that Anna has much to learn about her high and mighty cultural assumptions (not to mention, she’s a Victorian era woman who needs to learn her place within those assumptions).
The boy’s line would have been funny at an earlier time for a different reason because it would seem misguided: an imperialist (read: “civilized”) schoolteacher is no punishment! Yet, despite Anna having to rethink her belief that “the English way is the way of the world,” we also hear (in a voice-over by King Mongkut’s eldest son, King Chulalongkorn, who has taken over the “diarist’s” function in this film), that “Anna had shined such a light on Siam.” The film implies none too delicately that religious freedom, a justice system, and the abolition of slavery were all a direct result of that “light.” And, because of his own not-very-repressed desire for Anna, the King apparently comes to understand “for the first time, the superstition that a man could be satisfied with just one woman.” What’s more, in a hokey and unnecessary side-plot that takes over the film, Anna and her young pupils literally save Siam from an attack by a treacherous and disloyal band of the King’s advisors. It was all a bit much for me. I guess I would rather see a version called The King and Anna, a story told from the King’s point of view.
All this being said, I will give you a reason to go and see this movie: Chow Yun-Fat. He already has a devoted audience who adore him and his Hong Kong action films, but it is high time that he be recognized as the subtle, charismatic, and talented actor that he is. These attributes are definitely on display in most of his action films, but in Anna and the King, he shows that he has got the right leading man stuff for Western audiences as well. (A friend has suggested a John Woo-directed James Bond film with Chow as a Hong Kong-born, British subject Bond. I’d be first in line to see that.)
Chow’s King Mongkut is not the comic one we have seen in the past (none of Yul Brynner’s oversized gesticulations or pidgin-English). Instead, he’s a thoughtful and savvy leader negotiating a difficult time when colonization has already devastated much of the area around Siam and is now, using the long arm of the East India Company, knocking on Siam’s door. His dilemma is more than simply tradition versus progress (a theme of earlier films based on this story), but independence versus colonization (masking itself as progress). Conveying the King’s struggles with these diplomatic intricacies as well as Anna’s only gradually changing black-and-white world view Chow is tremendous, and utterly compelling.
Along with Chow Yun-Fat, the film offers other things to recommend it. For one thing, Malaysia (where Anna and the King was filmed due to Thailand’s censor board, which called the script historically inaccurate and insensitive; this film and all other versions of the story are banned there) makes for resplendent scenery, and there are lots of lavish sets and beautiful costumes. And for another, of course, you can always count on Jodie Foster to be solid, whatever the film.
But ultimately, the script is bloated (running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes) and a little confused, especially with the tacked-on climactic attack scene, and old-fashioned in its ideological themes, despite its attempts to update this tired tale. It is perhaps appropriate that Anna and the King has been released in the last month of 1999, for it is most definitely a 20th century film, and not one for the 21st.