Main cast: Chow Yun Fat (King Mongkut), Judie Foster (Anna Leonowens), Syed Alwi (The Kralahome), and Bai Ling (Tuptim)
Director: Andy Tennant
After Ever After, an utterly romantic revisionist Cinderella movie, Andy Tennant turns to one of the most fascinating figures in Southeast Asian history. After all, King Mongkut was the only monarch in the region that realized the threat of the Western imperialists on his country. When monarchs of other countries were too busy in their self-interests, Mongkut started the process of knowing thy enemy that was later consolidated by his heir Chulalongkorn. Between them both, they kept Siam as the only country in Southeast Asia that is never ever a Western colony one point in time. Smart or what? Mongkut was a man with vision, intelligence, and savvy enough to Westernize his country as much as able to earn the respect of the colonials, and pitted each Western factions against the other until everyone was too busy fighting to chew a bite off Siam.
And now he's a romantic figure, thanks to Chow, always a regal, classy guy in my book. I admit while I am fond of the music from the Yul Branner classic 1956 movie, I must admit Thailand has a right in banning that movie. That movie is a condescending take on the Western Lady civilizes barbaric King of Siam stereotype. This version, while overlong and ultimately lacks substance, puts Mongkut and Anna on equal grounds. Ultimately the platonic and effective romance is satisfyingly moving. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn't add up.
Anna is a widow who travels from Bombay to Siam with her twelve-year old son and two funny Indian servants. She has taken up the post to tutor Royal Heir Chulalongkorn in British languahe and ethiquette. Of course, when Mongkut and Anna meet, they clash, ending with Mongkut declaring that Anna would tutor all 58 of his children and a few concubines thrown in for good measure. Never fear, Anna pulls up her shoulder and sets to the task. Along the way Mongkut finds her outspokenness refreshing and attractive, and she his regal charisma and kindness magnetic. (Me too, for that matter.) Too bad political intrigue would soon sweep the country and spoils things somewhat.
Now, Mongkut and Anna have what I call chemistry, the explosive TNT type. Why, when they waltz, it is simply breathtaking. Never mind there's no Shall We Dance? score - the small tiny touches full of repressed yearning, each glance that says a million things of heart's desire... wow. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Chow as a King - that man oozes class from every inch of him be it as an ambidextrous assassin in The Killer to a suave, debonair King of Gamblers in The Bund. He is always the king of Hong Kong movies as far as I'm concerned. Okay, I'm biased, but so sue me for having good taste in men.
Jodie Foster's accent is a bit off, but she is wonderful as Anna, an outspoken woman whose initial repulsion at the foreign Siamese culture (she is called Sir by the Kralahome, Mongkut's advisor, because only men stand in the King's presence) to gradual acceptance and love of the people she soon grows close to. She also learns to temper her bluntness too late, but emerges wiser for it. This is a strong woman with so much repressed passion that it is a delight to see her loosen up.
Anna and Mongkut are so wonderful together, but the secondary cast are gems in their own right. Malaysian veteran Syed Alwai is wicked as the droll, sardonic Kralahome, while Bai Ling radiates quiet dignity and desperation as a concubine doomed by her love for a peasant. The latter's story is underdeveloped but strongly heartrending, thanks to Bai Ling's on-screen charisma.
Part of me loving this show is also because it's shot in Malaysia. Now that's not something I see on screen everyday, and it's wonderful to say things like Hey, that's the temple in Penang! or light up when seeing a local star in a secondary role. There's Syed Alwi, and I also saw commedienne Harith Iskandar in a small role alongside Singaporean funnyman Zaibo. And Erra Fazirah, a local singer, is Mongkut's first wife. Then there are Chulalongkorn, played by a local boy surprisingly well, and a little princess that caught my heart is played by a sweet local girl whose name I can't catch. It's fun.
However, I must admit the movie drags when it comes to the political subplot. Also, there are really long and rambling scenes that do little to the movie except for adding screen time. Sure, the scenery's breathtaking - Penang, Langkawi, and Kedah have never looked this good (the magic of fake props, I guess) - but towards the last hour, the movie becomes to turn tiresome. Even Chow and Foster's screen chemistry can't save things from going snoozesville.
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