Here’s another shot by a studio at the sweeping, epic romances that they used to make. This time it’s based upon the time King Mongkut of Siam (Chow Yun-Fat) hired widowed Englishwoman Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) to teach his immense brood of children in the 1860’s. She’d never been to Siam and he’d never met an Englishwoman. Culture clash ensues.
Those of you with functioning memories may recall that this story has been brought to the screen before. Do you remember “Anna and the King of Siam” from 1946? Starting with Rex Harrison as the king, it was a little light on actual Asian actors. How about the musical “The King and I” from 1956 or the animated version from earlier this year? I doubt anyone remembers the TV show from ’72 starring Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar.
All of these versions suffer to some degree the same problem. They take the Euro-centric view that the “civilized” Anna brought the “barbaric” culture of Siam into modern times. This condescension is probably a big reason why the current government of Thailand would not let the production shoot on the original locations.
This version does try to address the fact that the British were usually imperialistic a**holes. In Chow Yun-Fat, this adaptation also features the strongest of all the kings. In the end, though, the British way is still the problem in the embodiment of Miss Foster. Since the year of her last Oscar win, her lead roles have consisted of: “Sommersby” (sucked), “Maverick” (okay, but underwhelming), “Nell” (sucked), and “Contact” (Man, that sucked). That boils down to two corsets, one retard, and a rocket scientist. Not much to show for nine years and a price tag of $15 million. In this film she acts as if she’s in some sort of bodice-ripping, Harlequin romance. It’s REAL annoying. Like director Jonathan Demme, since “Silence of the Lambs” she’s displayed no growth as an actor and too much conservatism in choosing work.
The real selling point of this film is Asian superstar, Chow Yun-Fat. It took director John Woo three movies to show America what he could really do within the confines of the studio system, and it’s the same for Chow. Finally, he’s allowed to act without a gun in his hand the whole time. Maybe next time he can get a co-star that will act with him.