This double review comes purely out of curiosity. Originally I was drawn to just checking out The King and I (1956) however a chance to see Anna and the King (1999) also became available. I’ll be using this review to see how both time and genre can change the same basic plot. They’ll be a little bit of history involved as I begin to understand a classic of the musical genre and a more straightforward remake, that surprisingly has Jodie Foster in the lead.
I think my approach to this review is completely wrong now. I felt during Anna and the King (1999) that was looking for the possible influences from The King and I (1956) which will always shadow over the later. Having only seen the odd clip in various programs and YouTube I can see some similarities, which I don’t think it would be fair to share until I catch the Musical.
Moving away from my initial regret I can see a matches the length of the original, not padded out with musical numbers written by Rodgers and Hammerstein we have a closer look at the relationship between English teacher Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) and the King of Siam King Mongkut of Siam (Yun-Fat Chow) who came on invitation to teach his dynasty of children and concubines, (a posh word for mistresses) English and the ways of the West. With an awareness of the Western world around him, with the British in Burma (Myanmar) and the French in Vietnam the developed world in imperial form was coming for them in the mid 1860’s.
Another major difference is the loss of the soundstage where the 1950’s musical would have been shot. Instead we are on location, which for me gives the film a firmer foundation in reality. You have less control over the locations, making even the possibility of breaking out into a musical number. We’re allowed to focus on the relationship between foreigner and king.
Moving away from the obvious differences it’s time to focus on the film itself. Told from the perspective of the oldest prince Prince Chowfa (Kay Siu Lim) whose looking back on the time when Anna came to visit, well her extended stay in his fathers employment. At first I thought it was the king himself, only to be cleverly revealed to be delivered as an extended diary entry. We first meet Leonowens as bereaved single mum traveling with her son Louis (a very young Tom Felton) who are eventually leaving the boat they arrived on with entourage in-tow as they make their way through the harbour in hopes of reaching the palace. So far we have a woman whose determined to make the most of her opportunity, a lone English woman with only son and servants for company. Bringing with her, the Western ideals that have brought her up.
Essentially it’s a culture clash of East meeting West and whose culture shall survive. Even at the King invitation he’s really unaware of the teachers influence on his family, not so much the country as a whole who are not really seen beyond being extra’s. All played with actors of Asian origin, bringing some extra authenticity. Updating what the original is plainly guilty of for one the leads, there’s no white washing or caricatures here. Instead the main cast are more rounded, admittedly the accent sounds a stereotyped, or am I just ignorant to the Taiwanese accent?
In the background we have the scent of war coming from the Burmese with villages being massacred, with the finger being pointed at the British. conveniently making things difficult for Anna who after getting off to a rough start in a sticky situation. Thankfully her unique approach has won his favour during her stay. It’s not quite feminine persuasion we are used to. It’s her will that doesn’t grind him down, it softens him to see her perspective that does cause trouble for him.
Just looking Anna and the King the expanded world of Siam with a war in the background, allows the film stand apart from the musical that focus on the teacher/king relationship. The war adds another dimension, the politics of the time to show how his position can easily be effected both emotionally and politically. With the classic culture clash running straight through it all. It’s not a stand out film for me, that makes me want to catch the original version to compare. The more serious and thoughtful tone is welcome for me placing it in a more real and historical setting. I’ll probably be bringing more thoughts to the review than just now.
It’s been almost a months since I watched the remake, admittedly in the wrong order. The Musical far less intense to absorb as a film. Being able to enjoy it as a classic Hollywood musical, without the heavy trappings of historical fact weighing it down. I did still however come to it, comparing it to the remake released 43 years later. Both are indeed visually sumptuous with close attention to the sets and the use of local designs to create a lost world of Eastern Asia. The original film follows the same basic structure from her arrival in Siam. The presence of the king is felt in the opening scene, when a boat’s sent to collect her from the port she has arrived in. There’s no sense of independence in her to make her own way with her servants through the town. Anna’s (Deborah Kerr) wanted in the palace far soon.
Her ability to make herself known to the king (Yul Brynner) shows she’s wasting no time, that even after the first number that demonstrates to the audience she’s as frightened as everyone else in the world. Her entrances to scenes are pretty much the same, her arrival from the side rear to a wide open stage to be greet the camera and her king who has requested her presence.
With the staging’s confined to the large expensive sets we lose the expansive wide open spaces of the court yards and location scenes that we find with Foster exploring the world around her more. Giving her time to see where she has come to, get to know the king beyond the role of monarch and father to his many children.
However one important element has remained here, the Tuptim (Rita Moreno) character was still given a sub-plot, still given as a gift to her king. When all she wanted was to be with her lover Kralahome (Martin Benson). The later version sees him give up and becoming a monk, enough for Tuptim escape her life of essentially being a sex-slave to her king. It’s her education with Leonowens, It’s the influence of a western education that opens her mind to follow her heart at any cost. Playing up the will of the heart, whilst her part on the staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which explores the ideas of slavery even under a Taiwanese translation the idea of emancipation is not lost on her.
I can’t ignore the racial stereotyping that is all over this film, more so with the passing of time. From the “etcetera” line being milked to death, a phrase that’s used to suggest more of the same is a novelty to the king who bouncing it around like a toy with every other line. Using it to create a sense of intelligence and the Westernisation that he longs for his country. His children and many mistresses/wives play up the ignorance of the culture as it’s portrayed, willing to learn, but falling back on the comfort of the myths that the King has constructed for them. The introduction of an improved map in the classroom’s mocked almost immediately, on learning that Taiwan is far smaller than they once believed it to be.
The whole sub-plot of Burma and the potential invasion of the British is brushed over in a few scenes. Presenting an image to visiting dignitaries and the ambassador he seems to soothe the whole issue completely. Whilst the theme of death’s treated with kid gloves, instead of a child dying, which is always more emotive, they go straight for the our King whose heart seems to give out after an argument with Anna from the previous scene. It’s his way of keeping her in the country long after his death. He may not be able to marry her out of her cultural refusal. It becomes an obligation to the future of the country to carry on her work. Whilst the new king lays out down the first laws to help modernise the country, which Leonowens has helped shape through her teachings. By the close of the film the country is slowly changing in her image, that of the West that has caused the industrial revolution.
It’s not too long before it will be creeping into this still very untouched nation that’s steeped in Buddhist tradition. It’s her stubbornness to not give in and conform that sees the country slowly change in her image. Foster’s Anna doesn’t stick around, instead she knows when to leave and move on with her life, it becomes just another chapter in her career, but that doesn’t make for the classic Hollywood ending that endures. One that last far longer than that of a ship sailing off into the horizon.