The Royal Treatment

The mass kowtow is not going well. A young woman marches down a long corridor, barking into a megaphone in Malay. She is trying to get 896 extras--farmers and traders from surrounding Malaysian villages--to fall to the ground in sequence, like a wave. Dressed in traditional Thai draped culottes, hair shaved in 19th- century-style mohawks, the courtiers are milling about in front of a sparkling Thai palace made of Styrofoam and real marble. This is the set of "Anna and the King," the fictionalized story of the real English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who traveled to Siam in 1862 to teach in the royal court of King Mongkut. The extras are supposed to show their reverence for the king, played by Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, as he walks toward Anna, better known as Jodie Foster. Instead, they look as if they are collapsing in the blistering Southeast Asian heat. "The wave is on Prozac," director Andy Tennant says with a sigh.

If attention to cultural detail makes a great epic, "Anna and the King" will be a blockbuster. Its creators insist that "Anna" is not a remake of "The King and I," the 1956 movie musical, which was also based on the Leonowens diaries. While the real Anna may have met the king only a few times, both Hollywood movies cast the two in a love story. But the similarities end there. As played by Yul Brynner in the musical, the Siamese king was charming but buffoonish. The creators of "Anna" hired Thai consultants to ensure that their love story portrays King Mongkut the way Thai historians do: as a visionary who fended off colonialism by launching his country's modernization. "There will be no king saying 'et cetelah, et cetelah, et cetelah', " says Tennant, mimicking Brynner's comical English in the musical. "This is a movie about the arrogance of the West meeting the alternative of the East," says executive producer Jon Jashni.

That didn't prevent Twentieth Century Fox from meeting trouble in Thailand, where the story takes place. Thai film authorities hated "The King and I" so much that it has been banned in Thailand for 44 years, and they refused to allow Tennant to film in Thailand. Anxious to protect the image of Mongkut, whose heirs are still in power, the authorities fear the new film will also offend the institution of the monarchy. Among other things, the National Film Board didn't like eye contact between Anna and the king. "Mongkut said there's nothing to fear in foreign culture, but his lessons haven't been learned," says Tennant. If the film was absolutely accurate, he adds, "the king would have betel-nut-stained teeth and Anna would look like Austin Powers."

Hoping to win approval from the film board, Tennant went through five rewrites to address a long list of objections. According to the Thai press, the board didn't like a scene in which the king's daughter climbs a tree and drops fruit on his head. They didn't like Anna's son, Louis, making fun of the way the king walks and talks. They didn't like comments about the king's concubines and children (according to Thai books and records, he had 82 children by 35 different mothers, and a harem of more than 100 women). "They were adamant about everybody crawling around on all fours around the king," says Foster. "Details like that would have been prohibitive." In the end the National Film Board refused Tennant, so he shot in Malaysia instead. The budget soared to $70 million--much of it to build a seven-acre re-creation of Thai royal palaces on a golf course 100 miles away from Kuala Lumpur.

To the Thais, however, no story about one of their great kings can be seen as just a movie. Centuries-old lese-majeste laws remain on the books, promising imprisonment for anyone who would dare criticize the monarch. The film board is one of the most conservative institutions in Thailand, and wasn't about to take chances. It sent a copy of the script over to the imperial palace, which sent it back, saying the decision was up to the board. It was a tough position for any Thai official. Even Tennant's Thai advisers say the original script was unacceptable. "The first version was terrible," says Supinda Chakraband, a member of the royal family and a film producer who represented Fox in its negotiations with the film board. "King Mongkut was portrayed as a combination of an Arabian prince and a kung-fu master."

Thailand's current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is a direct descendant of Mongkut, and no one knows what he thinks of the flap over "Anna." But King Bhumibol once described Yul Brynner's portrayal of Mongkut as a "sympathetic character." His queen, Sirikit, said she had a "wonderful evening" after seeing Brynner perform the role on Broadway in 1985. "She thinks the show is fun," said the queen's spokeswoman at the time. "She and the king are open-minded." Supinda, whose great-grandfather was one of King Mongkut's sons, says she and other members of the royal family urged the film board to give Fox a second chance. Supinda says the family also assured the board they would advise the filmmakers on historical accuracy--and accept public responsibility if the final cut stirred up controversy. But it was no-go. One film-board member told NEWSWEEK that he feared the eruption of "a political crisis" if they had given the green light to film in Thailand. King Mongkut is a potent symbol of independence, particularly at a time when a financially battered Asia is worrying about "colonization" by Western investors and bankers.

But more than one Thai critic has pointed out the great irony of this flap: King Mongkut was the first Thai monarch to begin opening up Thailand to the West. As a young man he became a monk and Buddhist scholar, and also learned Latin and English, Christian doctrine, Western science and culture from missionaries. When he became king in 1851, Mongkut ordered people in the palace to wear shirts as Westerners did. He also began to bring the king's godlike role down to earth, breaking protocol by shaking hands with a favorite missionary--at a time when no one was allowed to touch the king. Mongkut pre-empted Britain's gunboat diplomacy by embracing open trade before the boats arrived and personally welcoming the British trade emissary. His boldness ensured that, unlike its neighbors, Thailand would never be colonized. And, of course, Mongkut invited a British governess to teach in his court. Publicly, the film board's main complaint against the final script was that it portrays Anna as "far more superior than the King in every way."

Leonowens's account of Mongkut has always been controversial, and it's still unclear just how much of it shows up in "Anna." The final script is still under wraps. But Leonowens was known to have embellished at least parts of the books she wrote after returning to England in 1867. She casts the king as a mercurial figure, alternately kind and cruel. She tells of harsh royal punishments, including sailors who got 30 lashes for playing cards, and a royal concubine burned at the stake for keeping a secret lover. Thai historians say there is no record of the incident, nor any like it, except perhaps for the $6 fine Mongkut once imposed on a man who ran away with a faithless royal concubine. "Anna's role is pretty dubious historically. She's very prejudiced and so is the king," says Foster flatly. "But they learn from each other."

Reinventing Leonowens as a difficult but likable character was a challenge. So was bringing emotional life to her relationship with the king, while also capturing the stiff restraint of 19th-century manners. "It's a bitter romance," says Foster. "It's true to the period, but also messy, and interesting, and emotional." On the set, as Tennant painstakingly shoots the king's march down the corridor, Foster, in blue bonnet, heavy bolero jacket and sweltering hoop skirt, stands primly in the blazing sun, hands clasped. It's hard to imagine her falling in love with the bejeweled monarch, followed by a retinue of concubines and dozens of children. "Both characters are victims," says Foster, a Yale graduate who is reportedly earning $15 million for starring in the film. "They are unconventional people living in conventional times."

The role that may draw the most heat in this film, at least in Asia, is the king. Chow has made his name playing tough villains in Hong Kong action movies, but he is stepping out of his old character to become the first Asian film star to play a complex, romantic leading man in a serious, big- budget Hollywood movie (box). It's a role that will offend at least some Thais, who argue that no foreigner should be allowed to play Mongkut. But Chow, whose regal bearing dazzles everyone on the set, says the movie is about shattering stereotypes in more ways than one. "Anna and the king have certain walls and boundaries because of the system they live in," says Chow. "The king is always slipping over the boundary."

The setting is a gloriously cleaned-up version of 19th-century Siam. The Oscar- winning production designer, Luciana Arrighi, created a "surreal reality" on seven acres--one of the biggest sets ever built. Some 500 Malaysian and Australian workmen erected the green and gold replica of Bangkok's royal palace and a royal barge fitted with golden oars. Dozens of Thai sculptors carved flying Buddhist angels and winged golden cornices from Styrofoam. The costumes were made from 15 kilometers of Thai silk. In one spectacular aerial shot, the royal barge sails down a river (meant to be the Chao Phraya, which runs past the imperial palace in Bangkok); 19 elephants, decorated with sparkling Thai fabrics, join the royal procession to a rice festival. The Thai consultants to "Anna" believe that Thais will clamor to see the film, even if they have to see it on bootleg videos. "Mongkut comes out as the great man he was. The film will show his love for his people," says Foster. "The film wasn't filmed in Thailand, but in the end, the Thais will say they love it anyway."

At the end of the day, Foster and Chow take their places for a final shot. A Thai consultant scurries about, making sure that ceremonial umbrellas protect Chow's royal visage from the sun. The kowtow wave has been perfected, and the king's procession has reached Anna, where the only lines of the day are spoken. It is a close-up shot, filmed from the waist up. In the tropical heat, Foster stands stoically in her bonnet and bolero. Underneath, hidden from the cameras' view, she has dropped her hoop skirt. She is wearing yellow and white polka-dot boxers. After all, this is just a movie.