The King and I without Rodgers and Hammerstein, much less Deborah Kerr — what will they think of next? Oklahoma! without the corn? Misplaced nostalgia aside, the original musical about the king of Siam and the starched English governess who came to teach his abundance of children was not one of Hollywood‘s memorable efforts. The studio, 20th Century Fox, churned out musicals like sausages, but rarely did it do well by the genre after Shirley Temple began wearing support. Fox musicals were often tinny and cheap. At their more interesting, they were somewhat vulgar, as with There’s No Business Like Show Business, in which Ethel Merman seems to be in one film and Marilyn Monroe in another, bluer variant. At their least interesting, they were The King and I. As directed by Walter Lang, the 1956 musical remains a blur; even now, the single song that comes easily to mind is ”Getting To Know You,“ though more for its Gatling-gun inflections than for its harmony. Only the image of Yul Brynner, shoeless, hairless and laboriously syntaxless, twirling Kerr over a gleaming back-lot floor, lingers, and then just barely. That and the fact that Rita Moreno played a Thai consort.
It‘s too bad that Kerr, who at one point in her career seemed the very embodiment of a fascinatingly restrained British sensuality, and just three years earlier, in From Here to Eternity, had been thrashing in the surf with Burt Lancaster, looked so absolutely right in corsets and crinoline. As the widowed schoolteacher Mrs. Anna, a character spun from the diaries of a real 19th-century governess named Anna Leonowens, the actress seemed all too willing to extinguish her own heat. With this ingratiating, lethally pleasant performance, Kerr whistled herself straight into the sort of sexless purgatory from which it would be difficult to rescue her. (And then, usually by turning her restraint into a gimmick, as John Huston did when he cast her as a nun against Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.) In The King and I, Kerr’s muffled eroticism was distorted into a frigid cliche, no doubt, in part, to keep the character safe from the implications of Brynner‘s imperial stance. Or, as the Variety review put it: ”The film suggests a stronger romantic feeling between Mrs. Anna and the king than was presented in the legituner, but it is done with the utmost delicacy.“
The fourth and newest version of the story suggests a similarly romantic feeling between the teacher and the monarch, this time with a little less delicacy and a bit more correct rhetoric. In a gross bit of miscasting, Jodie Foster plays Anna, which, coupled with director Andy Tennant’s blunt touch, assured that this movie didn‘t stand a chance. Never an especially interesting screen presence after she exited puberty, Foster has become steadily more self-conscious and brittle in the last few years, with terrible movies and worse roles all but obscuring her triumph in The Silence of the Lambs. Her pinched mien may have seemed ideal for the role of the white widow, but since Foster seems to have an increasingly difficult time coming across as emotionally open with other performers, she makes sense only at the film’s start. When Anna lands in Siam, Foster looks as if she‘s just swallowed a bottle of vinegar. The problem is that two hours and one cultural-relativism speech later, she still looks pickled, despite being cast against Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat, a sublimely erotic performer who smolders even when he’s forced to play croquet with a big bow tied across his stomach. If this dull, moribund movie turns Chow into an American star, then perhaps he‘ll be able to team up again with director John Woo. It’s a pairing that would be more authentically political than a single word of Anna‘s indignant speech to the colonialists in praise of Siam and its king, and a hell of a lot more fun.
One advantage to shooting movies in Asia, as the filmmakers of Anna and the King doubtless know, is the seemingly limitless number of extras who can fill the screen with their roiling humanity without the bother of union cards. But while Andy Tennant has a bounty of locals gilding his frames, Chinese director Chen Kaige seems to have retained nearly half the People’s Republic for his historical epic, The Emperor and the Assassin. Set in 221 B.C., and based on the story of the first emperor of China, Ying Zheng, the King of Qin (also known as Qin Shihuang), the film is the sort of insanely lavish production that would have turned Cecil B. De Mille green with envy, or ashen. When a renegade marquis tries to overthrow the king, the marquis and his troops run across the grounds of a palace so vast it looks as if it could dwarf the Forbidden City. And when the king (played with hangdog menace by Li Xuejian) challenges the interloper, he does so accompanied by literally hundreds of men marching in perfect lockstep. It‘s imposing, even majestic, but it’s also fairly nutty, because, as with so many of the film‘s big scenes, the showdown dribbles into a baffling, so-what finale: The rebels give up within seconds, and the king murders each and every one. The king can’t stop killing people, and Chen can‘t stop killing his own momentum.
Best known in this country for his more psychologically propelled dramas, Temptress Moon and Farewell, My Concubine, Chen never seems to have made up his mind on whether to concentrate on the sweeping spectacle or on the various and continually unfolding intimate intrigues. He tries to do both, but since his action chops are nowhere near those of his more obvious influences, Akira Kurosawa and Hong Kong’s Tsui Hark, and since he can‘t figure out how to marshal all the historical information into a coherent script, he ends up doing neither very well. Characters whisk in and out of rooms, intrusive informational titles flash across the screen (”The Residence of Former Prime Minister Lu Buwei“), horses gallop, retainers laugh, the queen schemes, a concubine revolts, children are slaughtered, multitudes die. Blood runs like the Yangtze, and you just don’t give a damn. The actors in The Emperor and the Assassin are some of the best in Chinese cinema — Gong Li plays the king‘s longtime love — but Chen doesn’t trust any of them to convey the necessary emotions. He‘s constantly cutting into their scenes and pulling us away from the very characters we’re meant to care about. More than anything, Chen seems defeated by the immensity of his task. The Emperor of Qin spent years trying to unify China (the alternative spelling of Qin is Ch‘in, from which the country’s name derives); he started the Great Wall, but is remembered as a barbarian. It‘s unclear if Chen was trying to essay some point about the rapaciousness of modern China; some critics, in fact, see the film as an apology for the PRC. That these nearly three hours of pageantry and carnage afford no clue to either interpretation is, unfortunately, the film’s most conspicuous point.