BANGKOK, THAILAND — Quick: Think of the king of Siam: Whose face do you see?
If the answer is Russian-born actor Yul Brynner, you can begin to understand why Thais look warily at the latest Hollywood film to portray their country. Just as the 1956 musical "The King and I" was outlawed in Thailand as slandering the revered royal family, so too has the government banned the recently released "Anna and the King" from 20th Century Fox.
"You cannot make a film that insults the monarchy," says Film Censorship Board member Patamavadee Charuworn. "Fox wants to [distribute the film] because it is business. We call this cultural domination."
One of this country's proudest achievements is that the West never colonized Siam, known as Thailand since 1939. Thai history attributes that triumph to monarchs like King Mongkut - the historical basis for the royal half of the film's title duo - who helped his country modernize without becoming a puppet state like so many of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Now modern Thailand is grappling with a different kind of invasion, as evidenced by countless 7-Eleven stores, Nike logos, and the sounds of Ricky Martin. As in so many other countries with a strong national identity, consumer culture and its trappings elicit deep ambivalence here.
Then there are the cases when a Western export simply is not acceptable. At first blush, so it is with "Anna and the King," which fictionally depicts the 1860's relationship between Mongkut and court tutor Anna Leonowens, a widowed British schoolteacher. The films are based on the diaries of the real Mrs. Leonowens, but historians have questioned their accuracy.
Rambo is welcome, Brynner isn't
Thailand historically has welcomed Hollywood productions. Characters from Rambo to James Bond romped the hinterlands here. But last month the national Film Censorship Board said the Twentieth Century Fox epic was disrespectful of the monarchy and therefore would be banned.
Although current King Bhumibol Adulyadej does not run the affairs of state in this parliamentary democracy, his picture crowns many a Thai mantle and shop front. The adulation is genuine and unqualified. Still, not everyone here is sure that the film should be banned.
Insulting the monarchy is illegal here, but judging from reactions to "Anna and the King," there appears to be some room for wondering just what is offensive. The film is prompting Thais to confront anew the issue that Mongkut's opening to the West introduced: when to welcome Western ideas and when to shun them.
"The people should have a chance, they have a right to see [the movie] and know what's going on," says Paothong Thongchua, an art history professor at Thailand's Thamassat University and creative consultant on the new film. He insists the latest effort doesn't insult Mongkut. "In this movie, the king gets angry; sometimes the king feels romantic, sometimes the king is laughing. [Director] Andy [Tennant] tried to make the king as a human being," he says. "If Thai people don't like it, they can walk to the American embassy and protest."
Even some in the royal family have entered the debate. At the invitation of 20th Century Fox, Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukhon, a cousin to Bhumibol and a decorated director, saw the film and declared it fit for domestic consumption. The prince questioned the ban in a major Bangkok daily paper, saying such a move would tarnish Thailand's international image.
Judging that interest in the film would run high, 20th Century Fox appealed the censorship board's ruling last week. A final decision is due on Dec. 29.
The appeal process runs in stark contrast to the scorn reserved for Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic "The King and I," which is still outlawed here without dispute. Mr. Brynner's Academy Award-winning portrayal of Mongkut is considered buffoonish and backward. Earlier this year, Warner Brothers released an animated version of the musical. That update also was banned in Thailand and drew criticism from Thai Americans, who said it perpetuated stereotypes and inaccurately portrayed Thai culture.
More modern king
Director Mr. Tennant wanted to make his Mongkut of 1999 - played by Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat - regal and dignified. He rewrote the script several times hoping to win approval to film inside Thailand, but finally packed up his set for neighboring Malaysia. That conflict foreshadowed the recent decision to ban the film. "They wanted to make a true representation of the Thai king," says censorship board member Ms. Patamavadee. "The thing is, now it's worse. 'The King and I' is entertainment - but 'Anna' claims to be real."
Chief among Patamavadee's objections is the suggestion that Anna, played in the latest version by Jodie Foster, enlightened Mongkut. "There's this narration saying that she came into this unknown land and challenged the heart of a king," Patamavadee says. "[A schoolteacher] doesn't have any say in the court."
The problems do not stop there. Patamavadee also cites the movie's poster, which she says shows Mongkut ogling Anna in a most unkingly way. And there are other details, from scenes in which Mongkut dances with Anna to historical inaccuracies, such as the suggestion that Siam was at war with Burma under his reign.
Despite her vote to ban the film, even Patamavadee does waver a bit.
"I think it's not good to tell [the public] that it's no good and not let them see," she says. "But maybe we should regard the dignity of our nation and disregard the temptation to see the film."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society