20th Century Fox certainly got a lot of mileage out of the story of "Anna And The King of Siam." First, there was the 1946 version with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. This inspired Rodgers And Hammerstein's magnificent musical version "The King And I", brought to the screen in 1956 starring Deborah Keer and Yul Bryneer. This incarnation stars Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat. For some reason, this beautiful 1999 version remains critically under-rated and vastly under-appreciated. The basic plot in all versions is fascinating fiction, based on certain "factual events," concerning the confrontational and complex relationship between British schoolteacher Anna Leonowwens and King Mongkut in 1860's Siam.
The casting of British Rex Harrison as the King Of Siam in the 1946 version is Hollywood preposterous. There's never any real emotional connection between Harrison and Irene Dunne. Deborah Kerr and Yul Bryneer played things more beautifully and brilliantly in "The King And I." The production is marvelous, if obviously studio bound. Here, Chow Yun-Fat is every bit as commanding and charismatic as Yul Bryneer. This King is more human and, as Chow Yun-Fat is actually Asian, probably more authentic as well.
"Anna And The King" plays less like "The King And I" and more like a David Lean epic ( I am mostly thinking of "A Passage To India") from a movie era gone by. While certain plot elements remain in all versions, this version takes the story in some surprisingly different directions. In terms of approach, the musical "The King And I" is about how Anna changes Siam. This "Anna And The King" is about how Siam changes Anna. Played by Jodie Foster, Anna is extremely high-minded and sure in her belief that "the ways of England are the ways of the world." Many of her smug beliefs and values are thrown back in her face after she meets King Mongkut and the people in his palace. By the time of the lavish "anniversary party", thrown mostly to impress the British, Anna is appalled by her country's prejudicial and unfriendly attitudes towards Siam. On a personal level, the King correctly guesses that Anna is so out-spoken and headstrong because she has not yet accepted the death of her husband Tom. She hides her pain behind a wall of "superior British strength." Still, she fights against several social and human injustices. Her manner does not sit well with the Prime Minister who says, "There has been much insult caused by this Englishwoman who thinks herself the equal of a man." A fascinated Mongkut replies, "No, the equal of a King."
There is nothing studio bound about this production. It was filmed on location in Maylaysia. Filming in Thailand was denied because any version of this story is considered controversial and disrespectful to the memory of King Mongkut, making it appear he was dependent upon advice and support from his British Schoolteacher employee. Ironically, the film confronts that issue head on. Anna totally over-steps her position when she tries to save the slave Tuptim (Bai Ling) and her lover Balet (Sean Ghazi) from death. The King can do nothing to save them because Anna has made it appear, in public court, no less, that he takes orders from her. Tuptim and Balet must die in order for the King to "save face" and command authority.
In addition to all this drama, there is added political danger. General Alack attempts a political coup by forcing a war between Siam and Burma. Alack kills the King's brother and several other innocent people, and he plans to kill King Mongkut and all of his wives and children. After the deaths of Tuptim and Balat, Anna prepares to leave Siam. This new danger, however, brings her back to the palace one final time.
Critics complained about Jodie Foster as Anna, and the film's length. I couldn't disagree more! At 2 hours, 26 minutes, the film IS long, but, for me, always absorbing and often heartbreaking. Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat are both brilliant in the leading roles. DVD Extras include a Making of Documentary, 5 production featurettes, a music video, deleted scenes, and audio commentary by director Andy Tennant.