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Beauty and the Bugs: 'Anna and the King'

Chow Yun-Fat and Jodie Foster star in "Anna and the King"

December 14, 1999
Web posted at: 4:42 p.m. EST (2142 GMT)

By Bonnie Churchill

(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- The golden splendor of the royal palace of the King of Siam shimmered in the 120-degree Fahrenheit (48 Celsius) heat. There was a regal parade of 1,000 extras, plus a mile-long line of horses and elephants. All in the name of replicating a part of mid-19th-century Siam, now Thailand.

Off-camera, there were oxen, monkeys, chickens, dogs and snakes. And there was Jodie Foster, her long hair folded into a crocheted ``snood'' that rested on her shoulders. A trickle of perspiration ran down her temples as she stood there in her heavy Victorian costume of boots, bonnet and three petticoats.

Chow Yun-Fat, as the king, sat regally in a chair perched on the shoulders of a huge elephant. As the scene progresses, the chair rocks precariously from side to side. Bai Ling, playing the king's newest concubine, Tuptim, nursed a broken nose, and 58 youngsters, all clad in period costumes, romped nearby.

Occasionally, a breeze stirred the banners and flags, but couldn't fight the heat and humidity. Foster said she just hoped that when she said her first lines, she wouldn't inhale a bevy of bugs.

Later, at the dailies, director Andy Tennant saw the spectacle unfold on the screen. He made notes when to cut the sweeping pageantry supplied by overhead shots made from a helicopter. He, Foster and Chow seemed to smile in unison. Suddenly their energy was renewed.

They were filming "Anna and the King,'' which opens Friday. And the richly colorful, romantic epic, they decided, looked just as it should. Now, the bug bites and the heat didn't seem so bad.

No Rodgers, no Hammerstein

Director Tennant, forever wiping perspiration from his brow, begins to relax. He's already hurdled two main problems. After months of negotiating with the government of Thailand, the country's film commission finally refused to have the epic filmed in its country. It was afraid that as in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I," this new film would show the country's monarch to be more clown-like than god-like.

So Tennant and crew set off to discover where they could film this movie. They discovered the 350-acre Clearwater Sanctuary Golf Resort near Ipoh in Perak, Malaysia, a country that has plenty of beaches, mountains and jungles.

His next worry was that Jodie Foster -- who had agreed to play Anna, the real-life British school teacher who went to Siam to educate the royal children -- would bow out.

"She had been so excited about filming in Thailand, where the story really transpired,'' Tennant confides, "that when I phoned her to say that wasn't going to happen, I hoped she'd still want to do the movie.''

The Oscar-winning actress naturally asked, "Where will it be filmed?''

In Malaysia,'' he told her. "We're re-creating the palace on seven acres, and it'll be the largest set constructed from the ground up since `Cleopatra.' '' As they talked about it, Foster became as enthused as Tennant.

In 1946, 20th Century Fox produced ``Anna and the King of Siam,'' with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. Then, in 1956, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II turned it into the Broadway musical "The King and I.'' Fox made the tune-filled film version ("Getting To Know You," "Something Wonderful," "The March of the Siamese Children," "Shall We Dance?") with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.

Now comes this nonmusical version, co-written by Tennant and based on the diaries of the real Anna Leonowens, a brave Victorian teacher who journeyed to Siam to educate King Mongkut's 58 children.

Foster loved the idea that a woman of that time would be courageous enough to take herself and young son to a foreign land and culture. Also, she liked the idea that Anna was just as strong in her beliefs as the King was in his.

"Each brings his prejudices to the table,'' Foster says. "At first, she thinks he's a heathen and a barbarian. Then, he reminds her that her native England has invaded other countries, and the English believe their way is the only way. As they grow to understand each other, it becomes a love story.''

Something wonderful

Chow Yun-Fat says the two never kiss, and yet their gazing into each other's eyes, without touching, becomes the most romantic moment on the screen.

Chow co-starred with Mira Sorvino in his first major English-language movie, "The Replacement Killers.''

"This is my first romantic lead in an American movie,'' the handsome 6-footer says. In his native Hong Kong, where he's a major star, his fans will tell you he has so much charisma, you could slice it with a knife.

"I still have much to learn about the English language,'' he says. "Playing the king was 400 times harder than other movies, for I had so much dialogue. Jodie Foster is the nicest actress I know. I first saw her in `The Silence of the Lambs' and dreamed one day we could work together. She is very unselfish. For four hours, she stood outside camera range, in her heavy, hot costume, giving me lines for my close-up.

"She also has a devilish sense of humor. My first day on the set, I had to ride in that royal parade. She had a banner across the road, saying `Welcome Our King, Fatty,' and had a band playing `When the Saints Come Marching In.' ''

Although it isn't a musical, there remains the all-important dance scene. "I kept worrying,'' Foster says, "that I was going to step on his feet. I was in Victorian shoes, but Chow was barefoot.''

He admits he did get one or two stabbings by her heels, but says, "The pain was well worth it.''

Bai Ling, who starred with Richard Gere in "Red Corner,'' took two weeks deciding if she'd accept the role of Tuptim, one of the king's concubines. "I wanted to do the role,'' she says, "but my hair is so long it touches my knees. When the king learns I'm really in love with a young man, he puts me on trial. I am beaten and my head shaved.''

Tennant insisted they photograph her having her hair cut and head shaved. "Finally, I agreed to do it,'' Ling says, "but he made it my very first scene. Next, he shot my hardest dramatic scene: I am on trial. The producers thought it would be fine for me to speak English, but Andy felt the trial would be more emotional if I spoke Thai.''

An instructor was hired to teach Chinese Ling the language. `"At first, they suggested I read it off cue cards, but I would have none of that. How can I be real if I'm reading it?

"I learned Thai, did the scene, had my head shaved and got my finger bitten by a baby elephant -- all on my first days of filming in Malaysia.''

After that, Ling says she thought the worst was over. But soon after, a monkey scratched her arms, bugs bit her and when she did join the producer and his wife, the Lawrence Benders, on a relaxing river cruise, the boat turned over. "I came up out of the water, and hit my face against the boat and broke my nose.''

March of the non-Siamese children

Foster brought her 17-month-old son to Malaysia, but he only visited the set when it was in a bug-free setting.

For the picture's wrap party, after the final scene had been shot, Tennant found time to put together a reel of goofs, which he screened. Cast and crew watched as Foster saw a snake, Chow blew his lines, and Ling got beaten.

Ling says, "There were several thousand extras used in the film. Most of them weren't actors. So when they had this one female guard supposedly beat me as punishment for my falling in love with someone other than the king, she tried to fake it. The camera picked it up right away. I told her to just give me a whack and we'd get the scene.''

Foster congratulated Ling on the emotional depth of the scene, of her real tears, of her cries of pain. "I thanked her for the compliments,'' Ling said, "but had to tell her that the woman really hit me with the bamboo stick, and it was real blood on my back and real tears and screams.''

The night of the party everyone got up and spoke of the pride they felt in working on the movie, how much bug repellent they'd used, and how it was an unforgettable location.

Finally, it was Jodie Foster's turn. "Everything has been said,'' she said, and smiled.

"Just sing your feelings,'' suggested Ling.

Foster thought it over for a moment, and then in a sweet bell tone, sang the lullaby she hums to her young son Charlie each evening. It was a perfect ending to a most exotic production.

Copyright © 1999, Bonnie Churchill
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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