When talking history, Thais can only restrain themselves for so long before they trot out a much-cherished fact: Their homeland is the sole country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized. And so it is no surprise that more nationalistic citizens find Hollywood incursions -- upon both domestic box-office receipts and the telling of Thai history -- quite unwelcome, particularly if those Tinseltown visions are perceived as defaming the royal family. In Thai custom, just as one should not touch another's head, the highest part of the body, one must steer especially clear of casting aspersions on the symbolic head of another country.
Westerners have long flouted this courtesy, goes the Thai sentiment, and no one more so than actor Yul Brynner in the movie version of the 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, The King and I. Inspired by the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a Brit who taught English in King Mongkut's court in the 1860s, the movie created an indelibly humiliating image of Thailand's still-revered former monarch. In place of the great reformer who spent 27 years in a Buddhist monastery was a bald buffoon, a despot who bellowed like a water buffalo and carried on with the white help. But Brynner isn't the only one to face Thai ire. As my own mother has said, "That Anna -- she's the barbarian."
So when Twentieth Century Fox released its 1999 remake of the Anna Leonowens story, Anna and the King, the Thai government banned the film, as it had nearly all previous cinematic incarnations, including the 1956 Brynner movie and the 1999 animated feature. (The 1946 nonmusical Rex Harrison version was merely frowned upon.) Around the time of Anna's release, the royal family decided to take the fight one step further: Queen Sirikit tapped one of the country's most famous directors to begin filming a historical epic about the life of legendary 16th-century Queen Suriyothai. A lady-in-waiting and a royal, M.L. Piyapas Bhirombhakdi would star; Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol, a descendent of the much-maligned King Mongkut of The King and I, would direct. The Legend of Suriyothai is truly a royal affair -- massively funded, exhaustively researched, a great white elephant of a movie.
Released in Thailand in 2001 and in major U.S. cities this summer, Suriyothai has a scale matched only by the scope of Queen Sirikit's ambition. The film's supporters say Suriyothai will rectify inaccurate images of Thailand as depicted in The King and I and its ilk; spur on the recent "new wave" of Thai cinema, which is just now climbing out of the doldrums after an onslaught of Hollywood movies and the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s; and, most ambitiously, teach Thais and the outside world "to appreciate the historical events ... that have seen the creation of the Thai state and the avoidance of colonialism," as a royal source told journalist Julian Gearing. Set in a country rent by royal rivalries and threatened by saber-rattling Burmese neighbors, Suriyothai is a domestic and international hearts-and-minds campaign, the creation myth of a nation done up in palace intrigue, plagues and poisonings. Thais are front and center, with colonial powers relegated to mischief-making on the sidelines -- a far cry from the civilizing influence of Anna Leonowens on a savage king.
Both Thai and Western historians have made great sport of puncturing both Hollywood versions of the Anna-king story and Leonowens' memoirs, which she penned after leaving the Thai court. In real life, King Mongkut was nearing 60 when Leonowens worked for him. And far from being a confidante, furtive love interest and political adviser to the heathen king in harem pants portrayed in The King and I, Leonowens appears only once in the aging monarch's correspondence -- when he remarks that the Englishwoman he's hired seems rather "nosy." As for Leonowens, she plagiarized from other foreigners' reports shamelessly, inflated her position from English teacher to governess and made egregious errors in her memoirs. (Among other missteps, Leonowens identified a picture of her most important student, Prince Chulalongkorn, as being that of a princess and claimed that the king threw saucy wives into underground jails when the marshy soil of the then-capital city, Ayuthaya, couldn't support such prisons.)
She also fibbed about herself, lowering her age and elevating the status of her deceased husband from clerk to officer. She concealed the fact that she was born in India and was likely part Indian herself, as English scholar W.S. Bristowe uncovered. Leonowens was a plucky heroine in her own way, though. She made her way out of poverty, at 14 barely escaped being married off to a man twice her age and traveled to far-off lands as a widow. But she didn't fit the Victorian model of a plucky, upper-class, pure-bred English heroine -- and so she literally whitewashed her own history.
When Anna and the King was released, the Thai government smelled blood. Commenting on the banning of the film, officials took umbrage at the insinuation that Leonowens' influence enabled Chulalongkorn to preserve Thai independence, abolish slavery and push through other reforms. In a notice to its diplomatic and consular representatives, the Thai government wrote:
It is suspected that the inclusion of such suggestion is motivated by the jealousy of certain western races that could not tolerate the success of an oriental nation which managed to preserve its independence and [introduce] far reaching reforms. Thus, it must attribute part of such success to Anna Leonowens whom they thought belonged to the superior race but who was in fact an individual with doubtful origin and could even be half Indian.
Part of this contains a point well taken: Why take credit where it isn't due? But the tone of "half Indian" betrays a kind of racism of its own -- one that also surfaces in the Thai insistence on calling Indian immigrants kak, or guests, with the implied notion that all polite guests will eventually leave. Similarly, Thai objections to the use of chopsticks in the Brynner film had less to do with historical inaccuracy than with ongoing Thai resentment of the successful yet "uncouth" Chinese immigrant-merchant class. No one wanted to see Thai royalty supping with the dinner utensils of greedy, lip-smacking Chinese.
Readers and filmgoers will be forgiven if all this sounds like a "who's the barbarian" roundelay. With Suriyothai, Thai nationalists are hoping to break into the realm of the civilized once and for all -- although that intent is put to the test by the film's innumerable beheadings, scheming concubines, pox sores, jouncy breasts and, as The King and I's monarch might have said, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Hidden in all the cinematic license is the tale of a queen who foils devious plots, gives up her true love and, in an elephant battle, her very life to save her country. As clumsily drawn as she is, this savvy Queen Suriyothai is almost refreshing after the tittering, sobbing Thai ladies of the Anna movies. Sadly, though, Suriyothai holds true to its royalist mission more than any feminist one, with the queen's sacrifice for her flabby figurehead of a husband. In the end, Suriyothai is a hybrid of epic nationalism and gore, a Merchant Thaivory flick that broke all box-office records in Thailand.
Suriyothai is not likely to do the same in the States -- it's too garish and sketchily told. Even the executive producer of the international version, Francis Ford Coppola, creator of The Godfather trilogy, among other things, couldn't make the story more coherent, despite trimming the film of an hour of footage. Minus the nationalistic fervor of Thai audiences, Suriyothai is bound for a disappointing box office outside Thailand.
Undaunted, the film's Thai creators are already at work on a sequel. In Thailand, Suriyothai bested even that juggernaut Titanic at the box office, a heady victory for a film industry that went from producing 200 movies a year in its 1980s heyday to a mere 10 or 20 in the late '90s. As for its long-term effect on Thai cinema, Western critics have already latched on to a nascent "new wave" in Thai film. Movies by rising directors such as Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Nonzee Nimibutr and others explore un-Suriyothai aspects of ordinary Thai life with a salacious and scatological joie de vivre, all bums and broad politics and melodrama. Commoner films are unlikely to reach for the epic trappings of Suriyothai; they just don't have the money to do it. But hopefully some of the attention that Suriyothai is earning as Thailand's most ambitious cinematic project may fall on these smaller, worthier pictures.
"Suppose you are Queen Victoria," says the king to Anna in Brynner's The King and I. "And someone say to you King of Siam is barbarian. Do you believe? ... You will, you will, you will believe I am barbarian. Because there is no one to speak otherwise." With Suriyothai, that's no longer the case. Although it can't single-handedly set the record straight, the film has lumbered into the war against Hollywood "colonization" like Queen Suriyothai's elephant, perhaps helping pave the way for the real substance of Thai cinema: tales of the ordinary and everyday that provide the best answers of all to a contested history.