Not Playing: 'Anna and The King'
Historical Epic Gets Thai Thumbs Down
By Keith B. Richburg
It makes for riveting entertainment, often with visually stunning backdrops, but is it real? Is it pure fiction, historical fact or something in between? And how far can a film dramatization go in reconstructing events, and dialogue, from more than 100 years ago?
These questions are at the heart of a kingsize controversy between one of Hollywood's big-time studios, 20th Century Fox, which produced "Anna," and the royal Thai government, which has blasted the movie as historically flawed at best, and, at worst, insulting to the monarchy.
After refusing to allow Fox to film the movie in Thailand, the government has banned it from being shown publicly. Police have vigorously enforced the ban, arresting at least three people for trafficking in pirated copies of "Anna." Moreover, the Foreign Ministry has issued guidelines to its embassies abroad to explain why the film is considered offensive here.
Thai officials familiar with the film and the controversy said the main reason for the ban is that the movie deals with the monarchy, which is held in vast public esteem and is such a sensitive subject that it is considered illegal even for an actor to play the part of the king. In the movie, the cigar-smoking monarch, King Mongkut, is played by Hong Kong action movie star Chow Yun-Fat.
In a country until recently plagued by military coups and revolving-door governments, the current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, has been Thailand's cornerstone of stability. The reverence in which Thais hold their king might seem extreme to many Westerners, who are more accustomed to seeing their presidents and monarchs satirized.
But beyond that, there are questions of historical accuracy, and what Thai censorship board officials see as an inflated role given to Leonowens in influencing the royal court. The film, like the 1956 musical play and film "The King and I," is based on Leonowens's memoirs.
Also, the late King Chulalongkorn is widely credited with Thailand's modernization, but the film implies that as a young boy he drew his ideas of openness and democracy from the English teacher. For example, when he asks her about the question of slavery, she gives him a copy of the American classic "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to read.
"The substance of this film is rather difficult to swallow," said Isorn Pocmontri, a historian and researcher who works with the Foreign Ministry and was asked to serve as an adviser to the censorship board when the film was reviewed. "It portrays the court as rather senseless and subject to the influence of Mrs. Leonowens, and the independence of Siam [now Thailand] and the modernization that King Chulalongkorn subsequently effected derives from Mrs. Leonowens.
"King Chulalongkorn is very widely respected," Isorn said, but in the film he is portrayed "as an arrogant young boy who refuses to be disciplined."
Welsh-born Anna Harriette Leonowens went to Asia when she was 15 and married a British military man. She was widowed at 24, in 1858, and four years later was invited by King Mongkut to be governess to the royal children, including the crown prince. She spent five years with the royal household in Bangkok.
After leaving Siam, as Thailand was then called, she wrote two books, "The English Governess at the Siamese Court" (1870) and "The Romance of the Harem" (1872). Her experience in Siam inspired a 1944 book, "Anna and the King of Siam," which led to the Broadway musical and the first movie.
Thailand's ambassador in Washington, Nitya Pibulsonggram, in a 1997 letter about "The King and I" that is posted on the embassy's Web page, said Leonowens was "the fourth in a series of English teachers at the court. . . . It is unlikely that she had much access to [the king]. . . . A great deal of what she wrote in her two books (and probably what she spoke of in her lectures) is false." Those falsehoods, the ambassador added, "were exaggerated by the publication" of "Anna and the King of Siam."
"The [current] movie at the very end shows the words 'based on historical events,' " said Isorn, expressing a personal, not official, view. "I can assure you myself that except for a few names that appeared, the rest was written up by Fox to suit its purposes." He added, "Even Anna Leonowens would be surprised by this movie."
Not so, says Fox. The film was as close to historically accurate as possible, said Jim Gianopulos, president of 20th Century Fox International in Los Angeles. "It is a story," he said, "based on historical events."
Part of the problem, said Gianopulos, might be the cultural difference between Westerners and Thais over what constitutes a dramatization. "There is a greater tolerance for dramatization in the West and particularly in Hollywood," he said. In Thailand, "the cultural importance of the monarchy is such that dramatizing historical events is not deemed appropriate."
Regarding "Anna," he added, "It's not a history book--it's a movie."
Although they are banned, copies of "Anna" are available. Despite some well-publicized crackdowns, Thailand remains one of the world's leading centers of counterfeit products. Just stroll down Patpong Road, the infamous red-light district, and turn down one of the side streets, next to the red-fronted Chinese restaurant, and there, wedged between the fake Gucci bags and the imitation Nike sport shirts, is a video vendor openly advertising bootleg copies of "Anna and the King."
"Only VHS," she says, offering a journalist a videocassette of the banned film. Asked if there was any concern about selling a banned movie, she laughed and said, "No problem."
The proliferation of pirate copies is one thing troubling Fox's Gianopulos. "Now it's on the streets in a bad copy version," he said, "probably shot in a little theater in some other country without subtitles. It's a little sad, because it's such a beautiful film."
The ban on "Anna" is also considered unusual because Thailand is not a country where filmmakers normally encounter censorship problems. In fact, Bangkok, with its large modern cinemas, has become a major new market for Hollywood releases and a favorite for studios looking for exotic Asian locales, like Leonardo DiCaprio's new film, "The Beach." (That film, too, was controversial because of concerns that the beach used for the filming would be damaged.)
In 1998 permission was sought for about 390 films to use locations in Thailand, and only two were refused; "Anna" and "Broken Palace," about Westerners in a Thai prison. Permission for that film was refused, officials said, because it also touched on the monarchy, with the inmates at one point petitioning the king for a pardon.
Fox said that "Anna" is a big hit in other Asian markets, particularly Hong Kong, where Chow is a local hero.
Fox's Gianopulos said the studio decided not to appeal the ban because it understood Thailand's sensitivities. But, he said, the movie had some fans inside Thailand: the current royal family, who saw a screening and were said to have enjoyed it.
"We were told by sources close to the royal family that it was not deemed to be offensive," he said.
No matter, said Isorn. The problem, he said, is that the Thai public may not be ready for the film. "Not many people in this country know about the history of that period," he said. "If this film is shown in public and some people take advantage and it stirs a reactionary movement, it could be rather dangerous."
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