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Saturday, Jan. 29, 2000

Adventures of superwoman in Siam

There was a time when you just couldn't rely on women. (Hearsay, of course.) They were known to weep, to whine, and then they would disappear at crucial moments on the arm of (in deep male voice) "some young hustler," furs dripping off their shoulders.

That was then; this is now. Among women are the finest, most disciplined professionals in any field, and that goes for Hollywood actresses, too. They work harder, faster and longer than any of their sisters 40 years ago. Marilyn Monroe made less than 10 films during her entire career; Julia Roberts churns out an average 3.5 pictures per year. They set up their own production companies, direct their own movies, work out, have kids, learn foreign languages and stand in front of the camera. In magazines they appear with an oven mitt and the caption reads: "And you should taste her blueberry cheesecake!"

Jodie Foster seems to be all of those things and more. On the set of "Silence of the Lambs," director Jonathan Demme dubbed her "the BLT (Bossy Little Thing)." Well, now she's a BLT on rye, if you know what I mean. No doubt she's dizzyingly beautiful and sexy as hell, but you can tell, from the determined set of her jaw, that anyone who works with her will have to work extra hard. You think of Jodie Foster and words like dedication, professionalism and marathon board meetings all flash out like neon billboards over a Vegas casino.

So it's all too fitting that 20th Century Fox has asked her to play the title role in "Anna and the King," a supercolossal piece of eye candy that recalls their studio's 1963 "Cleopatra." There was a lot of gossip about Liz Taylor as Cleopatra putting the production on skids with her mood swings and tantrums and dieting bouts. If this was true, "Anna and the King" is definitely not a case of history repeating itself. It's a case of Vengeance is Mine.

Directed by Andy Tennant and costarring Chow Yun-Fat, "Anna and the King" is a towering monument to spectacle splendor, supported throughout its two and a half hours by the unflagging work ethics of the two leading stars. The film was shot on location in exotic places like Langkawi, Malaysia, with production designer Luciana Arrighi recreating, pillar for pillar, a 19th-century Siamese royal palace spanning 3 hectares, and costumes that look hand-stitched down to the tiniest embroidered orchid. The effect is, to use a time-honored movie critic term, "breathtaking."

Posed at the center like a pristine couple on a wedding cake are Foster and Yun-Fat, whose initial mutual resent ment later blossoms into love. Foster's role is Anna Leonowens, widowed in Bombay with a son (Tom Felton) to bring up. She applies for the post of governess to the King of Siam (Yun-Fat) fully expecting that he and the royal household will respect her position as a British woman.

Those expectations are shattered by the high and mighty King Mongkut and his subjects, all of whom prostrate themselves whenever he's in sight. Siam was the only independent southeast Asian country, and Anna's British ways cut no ice with them.

Gradually, however, the King learns to respect this smart, feisty woman who is so very different from his 23 wives and 42 concubines. Anna also wins the love and trust of his heir Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin) and Tuptim (Bai Ling), newest addition to the King's Inner Palace.

Aside from the fascination of love blooming without ever being consummated (or even confessed), "Anna and the King" is an honest and unbiased take on the clash of two cultures.

Much of Siam's customs and lifestyle enrage Anna, who sees them as barbaric. Tuptim, for example, is arrested and executed for exchanging letters with a former lover. The class system with slaves at the very bottom is also something that offends her deeply. The King, on the other hand, can't understand her English hankering for privacy, solitude and silence. He is faintly amused at her obstinate modesty (she refuses to expose her skin even in the hottest Siamese weather) and her rigorous self-discipline.

But the story never fades into an easy understanding. Anna and the King remain fiercely different and therefore fiercely exotic to each other, until the end.

Personally though, I prefer Jodie in less of a superwoman mode. According to the movie, she was capable of singlehandedly teaching English to 58 Siamese children, inspiring a slew of royal wives, defeating rebels and enlightening the King without so much as a drop of sweat on her clear forehead. Couldn't she ever play, say, a self-destructive dumb blonde to make self-destructive dumb brunettes like me feel better?

Fat chance.

"Anna and the King" opens today at Nihon Gekijo in Yurakucho and other theaters.

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