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Weekly Alibi Thai One On

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Walking in to the theater to see the 1999 update of Anna and the King it's hard to shake off impressions left by Walter Lang's 1956 version. If you're expecting the characters to burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat, you're going to be disappointed -- but only for a little while. While viewers will not exit today's theater humming the unforgettable tunes of Rogers and Hammerstein, they should be left with enough favorable filmic impressions to wipe clean (at least for a little while) this frequently repeated story's past history.

The story of Anna and the King actually began life in non-musical form. It was originally published as an autobiography by British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. After the death of her husband, a British soldier in India, Mrs. Leonowens accepted a commission by the King of Siam to tutor the royal family. As a result, Leonowens was privy to a great transitional period in the history of Siam (now known as Thailand). Her employer, King Mongkut of Siam, was a great forward thinker, a student of both science and literature and a believer that his offspring must learn the ways of the Western world in order to fully compete in the coming 20th century. At least according to her account, Anna Leonowens was instrumental as a positive and progressive influence on this great world leader.

Leonowens is portrayed here by respected American actress Jodie Foster. Young son (and British accent) in tow, she arrives in bustling Bangkok expecting to teach the royal heir to the throne the manners and mentality of being a proper English gentleman. Impressed by her brash personality and strong will, though, King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) charges Leonowens with instructing all of his children -- which, at the moment, number something over three score. Undaunted by her task, or by the occasionally backward attitude of the royal court, Leonowens excels in her work and soon captures the love of her young charges and the respect of her gruff boss man.

Foster does fine, mannered work here as the independent widow determined to stand on her own two feet (even when a king's respect requires one to kneel). So long as her accent passes muster (which it, by and large, does) she's got nothing to worry about. Her co-star, however, has a tougher task ahead of him.

Russian-born actor Yul Brynner cast a long shadow in this role both on Broadway and on the big screen. Just the image of Brynner shouting "Et cetera! Et cetera! Et cetera!" is a lot to compete against. Though a superstar throughout Asia, Chow Yun-Fat remains a little-known factor here in America. His two attempts at American film (The Replacement Killers and The Corrupter) have, to a lesser degree, replicated his Asian action film persona (amply demonstrated in such Hong Kong hits as The Killer and Hard-Boiled). But Americans have not yet had a hint of the range that has made Chow such a respected actor overseas. Now, with Anna and the King under his belt, there should be little doubt as to Chow's abilities. The man can be romantic and comic as deftly as he can sling a gun. Chow has been working on his English, and is capable of much more emotional range in his non-native tongue now. While there should never have been any doubt as to Chow's charisma on screen, his role as King of Siam certainly drives the point home. If you're looking for a man to crown king, you could do a lot worse than Chow Yun-Fat.

The chemistry between Foster and Chow works wonderfully -- thanks in massive part to some glorious dialogue that crackles like a bowl of Rice Crispies. For the most part, watching Anna and the King is like eavesdropping on a cocktail party conversation between two impossibly witty people. Foster and Chow engage in a verbal battle that is, by turns, confrontational and romantic. Occasionally, the non-stop repartee becomes a tad too whipsmart to be believable, but scribblers Peter Krikes and Steve Meerson are still owed a nod of recognition.

Since an epic can't live on romance alone (and unrequited romance at that), the script is obligated to toss in a couple slightly distracting subplots. In the first, one of the king's many wives pines for her lost true love. In the second, a coup attempt is brewing within the walls of the palace. The film's ending comes as the only major disappointment, though, with its ridiculously contrived "action" sequences. The final showdown between Mongkut and his enemies looks more like a rejected ending for Die Hard 2 than an episode from someone's real life.

Vaguely silly ending aside, Anna and the King is a thoroughly enjoyable screen jaunt through history. The stunning costumes and gorgeous locations are worth the price of admission alone. (The film was shot in Malaysia after Thailand bowed out -- presumably because the country's current rulership didn't like the suggestion that it owes its entire "civilization" to one British schoolteacher.) Toss in some great character work on the part of the lead actors and some wary romance, and you've got a film that may not erase the memory of The King and I, but should complement it nicely.

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