A Star is Reborn: Anita Mui On the Big Screen

If Twitter had existed when trailblazing singer-actor Anita Mui were alive, it’s not beyond reason that she’d have her own version of the Beyhive, the devoted—often to a fault—online Beyoncé fan posse dedicated to defending their pop cultural goddess. Caustic engagement with non-believers may not be something Hongkongers were interested in, but make no mistake: Anita Mui fans are devout. They’re also eagerly awaiting the local release of Longman Leung’s biopic, Anita, following its splashy world premiere closing the Busan International Film Festival in October.

Leung has taken on a massive responsibility. And though he recognises Mui’s position in the Hong Kong pop pantheon, he’s not feeling any pressure ahead of opening night. With a week to go, he sits in producer/distributor Edko’s screening room, looking entirely jitter-free, as if a film about the life of one of the city’s most beloved icons isn’t at all nerve-wracking. “If I wanted to be afraid or intimidated it would have been very easy to do so,” he says. “I only had to concentrate on the creative part and the execution of the whole vision. [Producer] Bill [Kong] took care of everything else.”

For the uninitiated, Mui was adored for her feminist leanings and then-daring music and videos for catchy pop tracks such as “Flaming Red Lips” (lit6 jim6 hung4 seon4 烈焰紅唇) and “Bad Girl” (waai6 neoi5 haai4 壞女孩). She attained status as a gay icon for starring in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987) alongside Leslie Cheung, which won her Taiwan’s Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards acting prizes, and Peter Chan’s gender-bending comedy Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man (1996). She was respected for her activism and charitable work. “People are a lot more enthusiastic about this than about my last three movies,” says Leung with a chuckle.

To the untrained eye, Leung was an odd choice to direct Anita. With only four features under his belt, it feels a bit like Marvel hiring independent, artsy directors for its superhero extravaganzas, as it did with Chloé Zhao and Eternals; the styles essentially clash. Leung is best known for action thrillers the Cold War series (2012) and Helios (2015), alongside directing partner Sunny Luk. “In the 1980s, my generation was really into [John Woo’s] A Better Tomorrow,” he says. “We’d recite the dialogue and watch it again and again – on VHS tape.” Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films were another influence. 

But after scratching the surface, the choice of Leung isn’t actually that discordant, considering his film career started in the art department. He studied graphic design because Hong Kong lacked a formal film school at the time, and like many filmmakers his training was on the job. Leung served as an assistant art director on Victor Tam’s Blind Romance (1996), Tsui Hark’s Knock Off (1998), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Johnnie To’s Vengeance (2009), and as art director on Nicholas Chin’s drama Magazine Gap Road (2007) and Herman Yau’s The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010). 

Leung was happily plugging away on Cold War 2’s post-production when he was called to a meeting with Kong. He assumed it would be about editing, or possibly a Cold War 3. “We got to chatting and Bill said he’d been wanting to do a film about Anita Mui for a while,” he recalls. “It was something near and dear to him.” Leung didn’t lobby for the job. “I’m not a huge fan. When I got the invitation to direct the film I was grateful to Bill for being able to see I was the right director for the film before I could even see it myself.”

Anita would be a challenge regardless of Leung’s level of confidence. Biopics are among cinema’s most rigidly conventional genres, and come complete with a list of boxes to be checked: youthful years and hints of latent greatness, a few sequences involving early disappointments, a rapid rise to stardom, an increasingly difficult temperament, a substance-fuelled crash to rock bottom, then a comeback. The pattern repeats in most biopics, from the high water mark of Michael Apted Coal Miner’s Daughter, tracking Loretta Lynn’s rags to riches, to drivel like Liesl Tommy’s Respect, about Aretha Franklin. The rules apply to bios of non-artists too: Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game adheres to the same structure. What’s more, biopics are rare in Hong Kong, the most prominent being Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, about martial arts master and folk hero Wong Fei-hung.

Leung leans into the conventions with Anita. “It’s almost impossible to avoid that formula,” he reasons. “And I think one of my missions is to fulfil that formula and bring the audience a sense of that time and place.” Anita indeed cleaves closely to biopic structure. The film opens on Anita and her sister Ann as child performers that eventually grow up and move on to dance halls and banquets before Anita wins a singing contest in 1982. Superstardom soon calls, along with a doomed romance with a Japanese singer, lifelong friendship with fellow superstar Leslie Cheung (played by Beyond the Dream star Lau Chun-him), and a year-long exile in Thailand after a karaoke club confrontation with a gangster, that exile being her rock bottom in biopic parlance. Finally there’s a return to Hong Kong and her indelible farewell performances at the Coliseum ahead of her death of cervical cancer at the age of 40.

Leung kicked off the process with three months’ worth of easily accessible online research and a subsequent 30-page synopsis. Then came nearly a year of exhaustive interviews with friends and collaborators. After that, Leung and co-writer Jack Ng (who co-wrote Cold War 2) started work on the final script. All told, the film was nearly six years from conception to release on November 12.

In the midst of all this came a worldwide casting call for the role of Mui. Louise Wong, the onetime catwalk model who ultimately won the part, recalls getting a message through an online platform inviting her to audition – though she didn’t know it was for Anita. After completing a Cantonese nanyin song as well as a wenxi performance, a type of Chinese opera, she was asked to a second try-out, that time to sing the theme from Rouge, and Mui’s 1984 hit, “Life Written in Water” (ci5 seoi2 lau4 nin4 似水流年). It was then she knew something was up. “I was happy for the experience but I never once thought I’d get the part,” recalls Wong.

Leung won’t say it, but his experience with effects-heavy action and his background in art direction are likely what made him a good fit for the material. That’s a good thing considering the volume of computer-generated imagery (CGI) Anita required. The film starts in 1969 and spends a good stretch of time at Mui’s peak in the ’80s, of which much is now gone. CGI was an essential component to recreating Hong Kong of the period. Only elements actors actively interacted with—railings, cars, chairs, recording gear—were recreated. “I got lucky because we had so much time for post-production. Usually CGI looks fake when the artists don’t have enough time to do it right, and backgrounds are built from a single layer. Ours were built from 3D models that we could add extra layers of texture and lighting to.”

Ultimately Leung’s biggest obstacle was emotional authenticity, not just spatial accuracy. Mui remains one of Hong Kong’s most popular stars ever, and particularly important to marginalised groups. “We tried our best, especially with the recreation of ‘Flaming Red Lips,’ because it’s a very iconic performance,” says Leung. “She was the very first female singer in Hong Kong to play with androgyny in her persona and in her work.” Pushing those gender and sexual boundaries is what got Mui labelled the Madonna of the East, along with pop hits “Bad Girl” and “Song of Sunset” (zik6 joeng4 zi1 go1 夕陽之歌), the film’s closing set piece. Dramatic license was a given, so Leung and Ng mixed and matched research with imagination, often putting Mui’s words in fictionalised scenes to capture the essence of who she was, best demonstrated in the spare elegance and unspoken sorrow of the passage where Mui attends Cheung’s funeral.

Then came the music. Despite the copyrights for Mui’s music being held by another company, Leung had a crew working on clearances, and so he wasn’t too concerned about the soundtrack, which clocks in just 20 minutes shorter than the film itself. “The most difficult part was finding original recordings of her work,” Leung explains. “There isn’t a strong tradition of archiving in Hong Kong; no one keeps masters.” After locating four originals, Leung says he lifted a page from Bohemian Rhapsody for Anita, combining originals, Wong, and a second singer to bring Mui’s distinctive baritone to the screen.

All that work is for naught if there’s no Anita in Anita. Wong kicks off her acting career with a swing for the fences and help from coach Liu Kai-chi, the veteran actor who passed away in March. Wong credits him for teaching her to internalise Mui and tune out any doubts. “During production I didn’t let myself be bothered by thoughts like, ‘Am I good enough?’ Or ‘Am I doing a good job?’ because I was well prepared,” says Wong. “I chose to enjoy the moment. And we all had the same goal.”

For his part Leung tips his hat to The Crown for contributing to the final decision on Mui’s casting. “None of those actresses looks like Elizabeth II, but they feel like her. That’s what we were aiming for. When Louise [rehearsed], and even though she made a few small errors in the lyrics, when I looked around I saw some of the female staff already choking up. The decision was practically made then.”

Wong, who was 29 when production started, is the first to point out Mui has been dead most of life and that she missed her—and Cantopop’s—heyday. But she remembers her mother talking about her and seeing old television clips. “I learnt about her selflessness, and willingness to act on her beliefs. I recognised her tenacity, how dedicated she was to the stage, to being better, to innovating, all of which are invaluable to artists. And to paying it forward and doing your part to make the world a better place. I definitely became an Anita Mui fan.”

It’s far from a hot take to predict Anita will be a hit in Hong Kong. Mui died in 2003, the same grim year as the equally adored Leslie Cheung and the outbreak of SARS, making it another year Hongkongers would rather forget. There’s buzz about the film; people are making plans to see it with their families. If it’s a touch hagiographic, that will be a minor quibble for most. Leung admits that during the course of making the film Mui went from being a respected artist from the past to something more substantial for him too. 

“In that era, Mui, Cheung and Alan Tam dominated the entertainment landscape, so it wasn’t special. It was normal. Now, looking back, you realise how incredible those songs are,” says Leung. Hongkongers would love nothing more than to see Mui and Cheung reunite on screen; the nostalgia-powered Anita is the next best thing.

Anita opened November 12, 2021

All stills are courtesy of Edko Films ltd

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