Guess Who's Coming to Chow
I do so want love to conquer all...honest. And good-looking famous people in expensive, historically accurate costumes to live happily ever after, I swear. But each time I vow that my heart, too, will go on, I find, to my dismay, that my brain won't shut off. And so, I watched my fellow audience members file out of Anna and the King sobbing and dabbing one another's teary ducts. And there I stood--undabbed, unmoved, unsobbing, alienated, alone, my feet once more proving apparently unsweepoffable.
Not that director Andy Tennant's period piece scrimps on the requisite opulence. By re-creating 19th-century Siam as a point-spired, gold-plated, crimson-draped fantasia where elephants tramp blithely through the lush vegetation, Tennant seems to be gunning for a position with the Thai board of tourism. But these pesky humans keep blocking our view of the landscape. Not, mind you, the lumpen Asian masses, who, whether snarling or smiling, blend dutifully into the exotic décor, but the stars of the title--Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, respectively--who insist on talking, acting, and otherwise being bothersome.
As King Mongkut, Chow ably stares down the memory of Yul Brynner in The King & I. Rather than folding his arms with dim inscrutability, Chow's king is a shrewd student of realpolitik with slicked hair and one eye on the West. But as Anna Leonowens, the British widow imported to teach Mongkut's innumerable children, Foster yearns to express a wide range of emotions--from impudence to terror to infatuation--by subtly flexing her tautened jaw. A triumph of minimalist performance? Nah--just a demonstration of Foster's bizarre ability to underact and overact simultaneously.
Of course, this wouldn't be an epic without some dark-skinned folk slaughtering one another en masse in order to complicate the protagonists' already troublesome tryst. Seems the British are goading Burmese bushwhackers into an attempt to dethrone Mongkut. Seems, I said, for it turns out that the culprits are the treacherous Siamese. I mean, the British may be racist boors, but they aren't murderers. (Just ask the Irish.) And the colonial traders and the King agree that unrestricted commerce will inevitably bring about liberal reform, as always happens in East Asia. (Just ask the Chinese.) And, as we all know, free trade is an unproblematic, apolitical assumed Good Thing. (Just ask Gov. Jesse.)
Aw, quit botherin' yourself with that stuffy, cigar-huffing, backroom man stuff, will ya? That's Anna's problem, after all, having sublimated eros into unfeminine pursuits like booklearning and backtalking. So says Mongkut, who chides her for behaving like "A mother, a teacher...never just a woman." Why, ever since her husband kicked she's been flopping around like a fish without a bicycle.
Granted, the film is chivalrous enough to grant Anna some reservations about accepting the advances of a guy with 23 wives. But that only makes Anna and the King a feminist flick in the way that Bill Clinton is a leftist politico. By placing a moderate, commonsense position in response to a radically reactionary alternative, it pretends the unnecessary compromise that results is a Great Leap Forward. I mean, at least we let chicks write books and discipline students in the West. Would you rather be a concubine doomed to prostrate yourself on the floor each time your man walked in the room? Thought not. Here ends the argument.
Granted, such cultural-studies paradigm-flexing on my part would be for naught if the lovers had generated a touch more electricity than you find in your average Amish homestead. After all, this is a romance, and the grim, brooding despot and the bossily prim schoolteacher are suitably archetypal fantasy figures to desire (or identify with) from the secret safety of a darkened theater. Chow cuts a fine, imperious figure, and the way Foster's graceful throat rises from her gown is enough to make any lusty hetero man wish he were a lesbian (sorry...an alleged lesbian).
But does Chow get to put a little Asian into Foster's Caucasian? In a word, no. Their cheek-to-cheek familiarity never even progresses to lip-to-lip frisson, let alone rampant, uncorseted unmentionability--unless dancing remains a visual euphemism for The Act, in which case the two scenes of interracial dancing here will graphically defend proponents of separate but equal ballrooms. (I hope your secret fantasies aren't so Victorian that they don't involve bodily fluids other than tears.) Which brings up an interesting question. If, as Hollywood so strenuously insists, romantic love is so dang subversive, why does it never seem to temper the reactionary ideology of the films through which it flutters? As ol' Yul himself put it some years back, "'Tis a puzzlement."
Anna and the King starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.