Longman Leung puts on his rosiest lens and delivers a superficial but sweet retelling of Anita Mui’s life.
“Wait until I’m really dead before you start crying, OK?”
There’s not much that I can say about Anita Mui that hasn’t been said a million times before. Dubbed the Daughter of Hong Kong, Mui was one of the most iconic entertainers to come from there, and during her 20-year career revolutionised Cantopop and made headlines all over the world. She was beloved, but not without her share of drama and controversies, and with her life so packed there was a lot to choose from when it came to writer-director Longman Leung and his 2021 biopic.
Anita tells Mui (Louise Wong)’s story all the way from her childhood, starting with the shows she and her sister (Fish Liew) would put on at the Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park, through to her winning the New Talent Singing Awards and then into superstardom. She meets record producer Leung (Gordon Lam) and fashion designer Eddie Lau (Louis Koo), and upcoming megastar Leslie Cheung (Terrence Lau) as they battle their own demons while helping each other rise to the top of Hong Kong’s brutal Cantopop scene. Things begin to look bad for her when she runs afoul of a gangster, forcing her to flee to Thailand for a while, all while battling a cancer which is preventing her from performing on stage.
There would normally be a lot to unpack here, especially considering the movie’s biographical nature. But, interestingly, Leung opts to shoot the movie more like a saccharine drama than as a dive on the life of a complex, layered individual. Anita isn’t really much of a biopic in that it doesn’t teach us much about its titular character. It features a lot of stories from her life but more often than not we’re given an abridged version designed to show the star in the best possible light. Some parts are even completely fabricated, such as her relationship with singer Goto Yuki, a man who doesn’t exist.
Louise Wong works tirelessly to make her version of Mui as realistic as possible and as charismatic as the true Mui was. With a script this syrupy, it’s difficult but she manages to make it work and delivers an often heart-wrenching performance that successfully sells all of the stuff she’s going through while adding a layer of complexity to what could have easily been a flat, uninspired rendition. Similarly, her relationships with designer Eddie Lau, her sister Ann, and of course Leslie Cheung are some of the film’s greatest accomplishments. Koo’s Lau is a gentle, fatherly figure who’s always there for his prize star, and while she and her sister have their difficulties over the years, the love between Wong and Liew is palpable, and you feel the grief that Mui did when her sister passed away.
And then there is the iconic friendship between Mui and Cheung. The two were famously best friends, appeared in each other’s concerts and even starred in movies together. Including a person like Leslie Cheung into the mix was inevitable – as he was such a large part of Mui’s life – but it comes at the risk of his character overshadowing the story. This does happen a touch here (in fact, during my screening, people in the audience audibly gasped when Cheung first introduces himself), and there’s a fair amount of screen time dedicated to his passing. The movie smartly shows us the tragedy from Mui’s point of view, but it is odd to see what is essentially scenes from another biopic slip into this one.
Anita is very much a mixed bag of content. It’s at times powerful, emotional and beautifully acted: the cinematography is excellent and the use of real archive footage works to cement this tragic fairy tale to the real world. But it also deifies and worships Anita Mui as someone who can do no wrong. Is Anita shallow, pandering and emotionally manipulative? Absolutely. But it’s also clearly a love letter written by people who adore its central character. It isn’t a deep dive into her personality – far from it – but it is a celebration of her, a remembrance of everything she brought to Hong Kong, and the impact she had on the people around her.
For that it’s hard to really dislike it. For all its faults, Anita is still a touching drama and fitting tribute to Hong Kong’s leading lady, and it clearly cares enough about its subject for us to make us do the same, and mega fans of hers will no doubt find themselves shedding more than a tear for a legend who was taken from the world far too soon. I know I did.
Verdict: Anita might be guilty of deifying its main character and for its rose-tinted retelling of history, but it still shines for its moments of genuine humanity, its gorgeous filmmaking and some killer star turns.
Overall entertainment: 6.5/10
Leslie Cheung: Will screw anything but up
Anita’s controversial brothers: Notably absent
Archive footage: Honestly much more effective than I thought it would be
Director: Longman Leung
Writers: Longman Leung, Jack Ng
Louise Wong – Anita Mui
Louis Koo – Eddie Lau
Fish Lew – Ann Mui
Terrance Lau – Leslie Cheung
Ayumu Nakajima – Goto Yuki
Tony Yang – Ben Lam
Gordon Lam – So Haau Leung
Miriam Yeung – Florence Chan