Take award winning actors from two continents (Chow Yun-Fat and Jodie Foster), add lush locations and mix in a well-known story and you should be able to come up with a pretty successful picture. That’s the theory at least and on paper it sure looks like a solid plan. Thing is, making movies isn’t easy (if it was everybody would be doing it) and a successful formula doesn’t always add up to a successful film. Such is the case with Anna and the King.
If you’ve seen The King and I (or any of the other retellings of this tale), you know the basics of the story. King Mongkut (Chow) of Siam (that’s Thailand to you and me) hires Anna Leonowens (Foster) to tutor the his heirs in "the ways of the world" (English, Western Science, etc.) Mongkut ends up getting more than he bargained for however as Anna, through intelligence, charm and tenacity, ends up teaching the king himself a thing or two about life and love. All very interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing. The problem is the story as we know it is based on Anna’s own diaries, so one can’t escape the feeling that the story really being told is nothing more than a 19th century pseudo-historical romance novel ("The king looked into my eyes and said, ‘Anna, your Anglo-Saxon charms have made me forget all about my 23 wives…’") In general this story feels about as valid as a page from Penthouse Forum and, unfortunately, this version does very little to fight that feeling.
There are good points. Most notably the performance of Chow Yun-Fat. More in tune with his legendary work as Hong Kong’s greatest star than his previous, abysmal Hollywood productions (The Replacement Killers and The Corruptor.) Chow’s turn as King Mongkut is charming, charismatic and regal. He brings a rich, textured portrayal of the man to the screen with his commanding screen presence and natural humanity. It’s not his greatest performance, but it’s good enough to make a person feel better about his chances in Hollywood.
The cinematography is another positive. Shot by Caleb Deschanel, this film treats the viewer to an unending stream of color, texture and movement. With it’s breathtaking Malaysian exteriors and stunning palatial interiors the film is a real visual treat.
The above doesn’t make up for the film’s flaws, however. Overall it’s a poorly paced, poorly written movie that goes nowhere slowly. It’s supposedly a romance, but the absolute lack of chemistry between the leads and the incoherent pacing turn that into something of a surprise when it finally comes to fruition. "Oh yeah, they’re supposed to be falling in love!" Even when it comes to pass it’s awkward as the requisite attraction between the two is never established subtextually. I.E., they say the words, but there’s really no visceral reason to believe them. This is almost to be expected as Jodie Foster is notoriously lacking in the electricity department. She failed miserably with Matthew McConaughey in Contact (one of the worst films ever made, by the way) and she fails here. The fact that the "romance" is only one vague thread out of many in the film doesn’t help matters. Finding the point in this film is like me trying to pick my mother out of crowd shots from the Woodstock movie. It’s just not happening.
Come to think of it, that last line actually sums up how I feel about the film as a whole. It floats around the edges of being a good movie, fills in the some of the blanks even, but in the end it fails. See it if you’re a fan of Chow Yun- Fat, otherwise put your eight bucks back in the piggy bank.
This article originally appeared in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in December 1999.