In these days of media overload and wall-to-wall advertising, the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has become quite common. Indeed, many people make their names and fortunes based on scandals and notoriety rather than achievement. However, Thailand has always had a rather fraught relationship with one of the most famous stories about the country: namely, the account of Anna Leonowens’ time as a teacher of the royal children during the last years of the reign of King Mongkut.
The most famous film version of this story is the 1956 musical directed by Robert Lang, which also has a live theater version that is slightly different and includes more songs. There was also an earlier, non-musical version starring Rex Harrison as the king. In 1999, another non-musical version was released, this time starring Chow Yun Fat as King Mongkut and Jodie Foster as the foreign teacher. Filming was prohibited in Thailand, so the production had to be shot in Malaysia.
None of the film versions of the story are to be shown in public, and no plays about it can be performed. However, you will find that this reluctance is not only a matter of official policy. Even the ordinary “person on the street” in Thailand is likely to be affronted by the stereotypes depicted in the above films. Mention of this film is likely to draw glares and offended silence from Thais. No, they are not irritated by the earworm-esque songs on the soundtrack. Rather, it is the portrayal of King Mongkut that they find so offensive. Hollywood did assign a charismatic, handsome actor (namely, Yul Brynner) to the role. However, the script is far from flattering. Yes, the King is portrayed as an intelligent, fascinating man with a commanding presence. However, he is ultimately shown as a misguided despot who needs the love of a white woman.
Some of us might find it rather unenlightened of the Thais to equate the honor of a king with that of an entire country—even though many Westerners would feel this way about their own leaders. However, many Thais also feel that the film insults their country and people as a whole. According to an open letter written by then Thai ambassador to the United States, Nitya Pibulsonggram, the story—particularly the musical version—infantilizes and condescends to all Thai people.
Mainstream film audiences—particularly Western ones—may mock or condemn the Thai government for their attitude towards Leonowens-related films. This story is nothing but that—a story—right? Then again, does this “liberal” attitude towards other cultures not also mask a bias? Perhaps the Thais are not being backward so much as understandably insulted and proud enough to reject labels that others force on them.
It would be interesting to see a Thai director’s perspective on this story, particularly if a Thai actor were to be cast as King Mongkut for once. Of course, this would probably require a major relaxing of legislation concerning the story, but such a film might be useful to the Thai people, as a way of joining the international dialogue about them. If you find the stories that others tell you offensive, perhaps the best way to handle it is to tell your own side.