How do you tell the story of an artiste as legendary as Anita Mui?
Directed by Longman Leung (best known for the popular Cold War series), Anita is a biopic of an artiste who was so iconic that even today, her name is still revered within the Hong Kong entertainment industry.
Starring model Louise Wong in the titular role, the film tells the story from the start of Mui's career at the age of five up to her legendary final performance, just 45 days before her death at 40 from cervical cancer in 2003.
The film also stars Louis Koo as Mui’s fashion designer and mentor Eddie Lau, as well as Gordon Lam Ka-tung, Miriam Yeung, and Fish Liew as Mui’s sister, Ann Mui.
Anita is a film of two halves – the first half focuses heavily on Mui’s early life and career, while the second takes on her later life, focusing on her personal life, community work, and the days leading up to her death.
It starts off with her first shows as a five year old, performing on stage with her sister Ann, then moves on to her big break at Hong Kong's New Talent Singing Competition in 1982, where her rendition of the song Season of Wind beat 3,000 other contestants, and set her on the path to stardom.
This first half of the movie will thrill all fans of Mui, as Leung masterfully interweaves old footage of Mui into the film. All the high points of her career are there – from the flamboyant and controversial costumes of her Bad Girl era to her Best Actress-winning performance in Rouge, with snippets of her old hits providing the perfect look back at the heyday of Cantopop.
When the biopic was first announced, the first question on peoples’ lips was, “who will play Anita Mui?”. Who would be brave enough to take on the challenge of playing the role of Hong Kong’s most iconic female artiste? In the end, the titular role went to Wong, who makes her feature film debut in the leading titular role.
Within the opening five minutes, you can see why.
Wong is exceptional in the role. Yes, physically she looks like Mui, but she also manages to get the late star’s mannerism down pat, from her trademark pursed lips, that steely, fierce gaze, and most of all, her magnificent, larger than life onstage presence. The fact that Mui had such a distinct personality and so many iconic looks helps, of course, but it is to Wong’s credit that for most of the film, you don’t get the feeling that she is merely playing Anita Mui. She IS Anita Mui.
As mentioned, this is a film of two halves. While the first half was a nostalgic blast from the past, the second half is where the film starts to falter.
Leung struggles with the more personal aspects of Mui’s life, and he is guilty of being too reverential at times, as well as completely skipping certain aspects of her life and personality.
Mui’s personal life was famously complicated and well-documented, from her various failed relationships to her troubles with her family, especially her mother and two brothers, who have been completely omitted from this film. She was one of the more outspoken artistes in Hong Kong, regularly causing controversies with her political views. None of these, however, are in the film.
Instead, Leung tries to put more emphasis on her failure in romance. To do so, he introduces two fictional love interests – Ayumu Nakajima’s Yuki Godo and Tony Yang’s ‘Ben’ – but there is no spark between Wong and either of the two actors, and those scenes don’t really do justice to Mui’s story.
There is also an attempt to add some unnecessary drama and ‘action’ into the plot via a bust-up with a triad boss and a subsequent ‘escape’ to Thailand, a jarringly bizarre sequence that just seems out of place in the overall context of the film.
Thankfully, the scenes with her mentor Lau, sister Ann and close friend Cheung fare much better. In fact, I would have preferred to see more of her friendship with Cheung instead of those misguided attempts at romance, especially since his story was so compelling as well (I would love to see a biopic on Cheung that serves as a companion piece to Anita).
Cheung’s death in April 2003, just months before her own death, is also given a suitably emotional spotlight in this film, and kickstarts the string of events that would lead to the climax of the film – Mui’s final farewell concert, just 45 days before her death.
All in all, Anita is a fitting tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most famous daughters, though it does have some considerable flaws. Still, nothing else matters by the time the chorus of Mui’s signature tune Sunset Melody comes on in the end – you'll be too busy crying tears of joy and sadness at the memory of a legend who was taken from us far too soon.
Fitting but flawed biopic on one of Hong Kong's most famous daughters