Political Film Society - Newsletter #62 - December 23, 1999

December 23, 1999


Since the Political Film Society moved to Hollywood, the number of eligible films has increased considerably in 1999 -- a record 28 nominations have been made during the year. The rule governing nominations requires that a film must be exhibited for at least one week in a commercial cinema in the headquarters county, which is now Los Angeles County, where a large number of independent films are screened. Now is the last week for Political Film Society members to nominate films raising political consciousness for the year 1999; the deadline is December 31.

In 1862, Thailand was surrounded by imperialist powers and ruled by the Chakri dynasty. Britain controlled Burma on the East, and France was moving up the Mekong to exercise sovereignty over Indochina on the West. Dissatisfied with religious-oriented education provided to members of the royal court by Christian missionaries from Britain, King Mongkut Chakri of Thailand recruited a British schoolteacher, a widow named Anna Leon Owens living in Singapore, to educate the children of his seventy wives and concubines, presumably including Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (played by Keith Chin). Anna's story, recorded in grossly fabricated diaries, has inspired a stage play, a musical, and four films, the latest known as Anna and the King, directed by Andy Tennant. Of the many versions, Anna and the King is the most politically oriented, if entirely fictional. Anna (played by Jodie Foster) displays righteous indignation, if we are to believe the absurd story, in just the ways in which King Mongkut (played by Chow Yun-Fat) must learn in order to know how to appear more civilized to his chief threat, the English. Anna, in turn, adapts to Thai customs, and the audience with her learns that Thais have irrepressible humor as well as a certain charismatic dignity mixed with humility. From Anna, the king discovers that British value independence even in matters of the libido, keep a stiff upper lip despite considerable sentimentality, and revere the sanctity of human life, but abhor cruelty, subservience, and violence.

At the appropriate time, we are to believe that Anna organizes a lavish state dinner to impress the British community in Bangkok (with whom she actually never spoke) that Thailand has a modern ruler who can converse eloquently in English, provide excellent food and dining accouterments, and even waltz after dinner, but of course the Anglo-Siamese commercial treaty had been signed in 1855 by an English ambassador who was already impressed with Mongkut, who signed the treaty in part to undermine the power of the Thai nobility. Unlike previous versions, Anna and the King fabricates court intrigue, focusing on those who oppose the king's plan to modernize Thailand. General Alak (played by Randall Duk Kim), the head of the army, tries to arrange a mutiny that will end the Chakri dynasty, but the plot is supposedly foiled when the king arranges to blow up a key bridge that separates the army from the royal family. Titles at the end indicate that when Chulalongkorn succeeded his father as king, Thailand abolished slavery and entered the modern world as the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid being colonized. However, the film was shot on location primarily in Malaysia, since the script took such liberties with Thai customs and historical accuracy that Thailand refused permission to serve as the venue for the filming. The film studio underestimated the seriousness of the crime of lésè majesté, which the film violates many times, as kings do not permit such intimacy with foreigners. Nonetheless, most filmviewers will assume from the film that Thailand's customs, people, and scenery are so awesome that a trip to the Land of Smiles will be amply rewarded. MH

Professor David Siemers of Colorado College has just made the tenth contribution to the Syllabus Series. Click here to purchase the syllabus.

DEMOCRACY: East of Hope Street, Fight Club, The Insider, Naturally Native, Three Kings
Bastards, Cabaret Balkan, East of Hope Street, The Insider, Naturally Native, One Man's Hero,
Three Kings, Three Seasons
The General's Daughter, The Green Mile, Hard, Naturally Native, One Man's Hero, Three Kings, Three Seasons, Xiu Xiu
PEACE: Cabaret Balkan, Earth, Light It Up, One Man's Hero, Three Kings, West Beirut