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disconscious

The King and I and I

I watched the movie "The King and I", which purports to relate the experience of an English governess who was invited to educate the kids and wives of the King of Siam in the 1860s.

This movie generated a lot of controversy in Thailand and was banned by the current King Bhumibol because of the disrespectful way in which it portrays King Mongkut, one of his ancestors.

The movie is indeed quite offensive, portraying the king as a little bit of a simpleton with very basic English and comical scientific pretensions. The governess on the other hand is supposed to be a well minded reformer who chastises him for his treatment of women and of "slaves". She treats him indulgently like he is a “bon sauvage” to whom "proper" English manners have to be taught.

I think the main issue is with Margaret Landon, a missionary to Thailand who distorted and amplified the original account by Anna Leonowens. I also don’t like the way Yul Brynner plays the king as some sort of hyperactive swaggerer with an authoritarian streak. Not to mention Brynner does not look one ounce like a Thai.

Still, some essential qualities of this king shine through, like his good heart (he used to be a monk), his curiosity and passion for science, his energy, and his very real preoccupations of the time.

There are also a few other grains of truth in the movie. For example, I was surprised to learn the king did indeed have a harem and hundreds of kids. I was amused when Anna is shocked to see the king and his officials not wearing shirts. I had noticed that in portraits made at the time, and it is something the Thai are a bit uncomfortable with. There are some evocations of the tense relations with Burma, of the king’s preoccupation with introducing scientific education in his country, with colonialism, and the way France seized part of his country. Finally, it is true his subjects had to bow deeply before him, and that his son abolished the practice as well as that of slavery.

Also, this English governess, Leonowens, was indeed quite a remarkable woman, who went on to have quite a bit of influence in the feminist movement. She may indeed have had some influence on King Chulalongkorn, who expressed public gratitude to her.

Overall, the movie feels very dated, the singing pieces are not very good, the king does not look Thai at all, there is a lot of Chiniaiseries (naive confusion between Chinese culture and customs and those of the Thai), and the overall impression is that of a movie inspired by an ignorant colonialist mindset which applies its own preoccupation (with slavery, with the role of women, with democracy and enlightenment, etc) to a culture for which it has little respect and of which it has little knowledge.

Whether this movie warrants a ban in Thailand for "lèse majesté" I doubt somewhat; most Thai would probably see it for what it is: a silly but somewhat entertaining if disrespectful portrayal of the court of one of their kings. Since this movie is often the first some foreigners still hear about Thailand, it can be good to have seen it if only to be able to dismiss it more incisively.

PS: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as a Siamese ballet is actually quite inspired and one of the rare scene I enjoyed in the movie.

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Tags: anna leonowens, asia, bhumibol adulyadej, margaret landon, thailand, the king and i, uncle tom's cabin, yul brynner
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