Anna and the King

Whether or not you wanted it, another version of the story of Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam arrives on movie screens everywhere. The last time we saw this movie, it was animated and horrible, and thankfully left theaters quickly. The most famous version came out a number of years ago, and is also notorious for its derogatory portrayal of the Thai monarchy. Now, it is back, with superstar Jodie Foster (Contact, Nell) and action star Chow Yun-Fat (The Corrupter, The Replacement Killers), in a good retelling of the familiar story of Leonowens, a widow who travels to Siam (now Thailand) to instruct the King's eldest son.

Back when the sun never set on the British Empire, other cultures were viewed as barbarians and savages. European countries were busy colonizing different parts of the world for themselves. Southeast Asia was no different. When Anna arrives, she brings with her all of her prejudices. What she finds is drastically different. The King is noble, and cares for his people. He shoulders an enormous amount of responsibility for his people, something Anna does not initially realize. Anna, on the other hand, believes that the British way is the proper way. She wants a house, separate from the palace to raise her son correctly. She brushes aside Siamese customs like an American tourist in a foreign country. Her time spent with the King and his children slowly begin to change her views.

Anna and the King was not filmed in Thailand, because the Thai government was afraid of yet another potentially bad portrayal. As a result, director Andy Tennant (Ever After, Fools Rush In) and crew trekked off to Malaysia, and the difference is probably not noticeable to anyone in the United States. The locations are gorgeous, especially Mongkut's palace, which is one of the larger sets completely constructed for a film in recent memory. The Siamese marketplaces are bustling with activity and grime, while the palace is enormous, regal, and impossibly clean. All of the costumes, even Foster's simple clothes, are a wonder to behold. The film itself is beautiful beyond belief, which masks the hollowness of the story. The basic story is familiar, and nothing new is done with it. Attempts at emotion with the King's concubine Tuptim (Bai Ling, Red Corner, Wild Wild West) fall short and just extend the story. There are also plenty of scenes with the King's children to make you go "oh how cute!" The story shifts between the (non) relationship between Anna and the King, and a revolution in Siam, and picks up near the end of the movie when the latter is emphasized.

However, the acting more than makes up for any other deficiencies. Foster, who does not make many films, is a reliable actress. She does another good job here, but is overshadowed by her co-star Chow. Chow, who is primarily known for taking violence to the nth degree with John Woo in Hong Kong cinema with films like Hard-Boiled, The Killer, and A Better Tomorrow, gives an impressive performance as Mongkut. For once, Chow is not mowing down enemies like a living video game, he is actually speaking, and speaking pretty well (for those of you who don't know, his accent in the movie is Thai, not his normal Chinese accent). Also surprising is the amount of subtitles used in the movie, which may turn off many lazy people (who says the imperialist attitude is gone?) who do not feel like reading. This adds to the realism of the film, especially near the beginning, with Anna and her son seemingly isolated from all they find familiar. Overall, Anna and the King, despite a small lack of story, makes up for it with beautiful production and great acting.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 25 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some intense violent sequences.

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