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the King (1999)...
an English widow named Anna Leonowens became court teacher to the enormous brood of
Mongkut, the King of Siam. Her story, best known from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, is usually told as a celebration of
colonialism: headstrong British schoolmarm teaches vain and childish monarch the virtues
Anna and the King offers a far more complex version of the tale.
More concerned with exploring cultural difference than demonstrating Western superiority,
the film presents a Mongkut who is anything but childish. Here, he's a Machiavellian
tactician struggling to prevent his country's colonization and willing to adopt Western
mores only when they offer him an advantage. Mongkut doesn't capitulate to Anna's priggish
scolding, as in The King and I. Her covert attempts to influence Siamese politics
are circumvented, ignored or revealed as the disastrous miscalculations of someone
hopelessly out of her depth. She doesn't convert the heathen; outmatched and outwitted,
she converts instead.
Chow Yun-Fat is extraordinary as King Mongkut. Best known in America as
the brooding star of John Woo's hyperbolic Hong Kong action films Hard Boiled, A
Better Tomorrow, and The Killer, his range is in fact much broader than those
performances might suggest. He's a fine comic actor and a charming romantic lead. He's
often called the Chinese Cary Grant, but Sean Connery may be closer to the mark: Chow has
Connery's warmth and intelligence, his smoldering erotic presence, and above all his
unflappable calm. He seems to float through Woo's absurdist ultraviolence,
impervious, smiling sweetly to himself as he kills everything in his path.
Since his move to the United States, Chow has been cast only in tepid
imitation Woo films. He can carry subpar Chinese films on the force of his charisma, but
until now, his dicey English has kept him straitjacketed. There's nothing in the numbingly
stupid The Replacement Killers or the mediocre The Corrupter that takes advantage of his talents: he's
just another action star in another pointless cop drama.
Mongkut isn't just Chow's finest American role, it may be his finest
ever. He embodies all the contradictions of a man who is both king and god to his people.
No other living actor could be so convincingly regal: he is both disdainful and
compassionate, witty and somber, fiercely autocratic and doting. It's a great performance,
as good as any this year. One hopes it will establish him as an American star and allow
him to stop wasting himself in formulaic action movies.
Anna and the King fails, however, to live up to his performance.
It's a smart, well-crafted film, with fine performances and - up until the silly final
scenes - a script that never shies away from the thorny issues it raises. The problem is
Jodie Foster's mannered, brittle performance as Anna.
Chow and Foster make an odd pair. He may be the warmest, most sensual
actor working today, while she may be the coldest. She is best at communicating
intelligence and distance. From her earliest roles, she's never been afraid of being
off-putting. Anna is a role that should play to these strengths: she is a rigid,
circumspect widow who ingratiates herself to an imperious monarch by sheer force of will.
Yet Foster never claims Anna as her own. She seems hemmed in by her accent and her
costuming: when she appears, near the film's end, in loose hair and a dressing gown, she
seems unfettered for the first time. Foster's stiffness prevents us from engaging with the
character, and keeps us conscious of her performance; for all her prodigious technique, we
never forget she's acting.
Anna and the King unwittingly pits a star against an actor, and
the star walks away with the film.
- Gary Mairs