The short life and brilliant career of Hong Kong singer, actress and social activist Anita Mui is celebrated in the middling biopic “Anita,” starring 31-year-old model Louise Wong in her film debut. This handsomely decorated and lushly filmed portrait nails the look and electric atmosphere in Hong Kong’s entertainment industry during its 1980s and ’90s heyday but only fitfully captures the sassy energy and fearless spirit that made Mui an adored figure who became known as the “Madonna of the East” and the “Daughter of Hong Kong.” Archival footage of Mui sprinkled throughout the film highlights the difference.
“Anita” joins a long list of productions about Mui (Miu Yim-fong), who died from cervical cancer in Dec. 2003 at the age of 40. Among these are the lengthy Chinese TV series “Anita Mui Fei” (2007) and “Dearest Anita” (2019), a fact-based drama inspired by members of the Mui Nation online fan club. This big-budget production is certain to become the most widely distributed of all Anita Mui-inspired screen projects. Despite its shortcomings, the first feature directed solo by action movie hitmaker Longman Leung (the “Cold War” franchise) has the gloss and nostalgic appeal to become a hit wherever Mui’s life and legacy are held dear.
Taking a page from many a musical biography, “Anita” begins with the doomed star about to step on stage for the last time. Bravely holding it all together and dressed in a stunning wedding gown created by long-serving stylist and mentor Eddie Lau (Louis Koo), Mui (Wong) says, “I’m going to miss this.” Moments after being raised to the stage on a hydraulic platform and greeted by her adoring public, the story abruptly leaps back in time. This tried-and-true technique work works like a charm. Many viewers are likely to get goose bumps and it’s not going too far to suggest that some of Mui’s most fervent fans may be reduced to tears even at this early stage.
The film’s high energy level continues in flashbacks to 1969, when 6-year-old Anita and 10-year-old sister Ann trod the boards as singing duo “Yee-yee and Yee-na.” It’s wonderful to watch the talented girls mixing with eccentric performers backstage before wowing audiences at venues including the famous Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park, which hosted Cantonese opera and provided a platform for many aspiring pop stars. Seen here briefly is Adam Cheng (Carlos Chan), whose crowd-pleasing ability to also sing in Japanese, English and Mandarin is noted by the sharp-minded young Anita.
With production designer Pater Wong, DP Anthony Pun and costume designer Dora Ng bringing their A game to this enterprise, “Anita” looks great as it rocks into 1982. Mui’s whirlwind rise to stardom begins with sister Ann (Fish Liew) graciously stepping aside for Mui to enter a talent quest as a solo artist. After beating out thousands of hopefuls, Mui wins the grand prize of a recording contract with Cantopop hit factory Capital Management. The screenplay by director Leung and Jack Ng (“Cold War II”) portrays Mui as a clever and fiercely determined cookie who listens to good advice from record producer Mr. So (Lan Ka-tung), his wise right-hand Florence (Marion Yeung) and stylist Eddie Lau before gaining the confidence to bust out and do things her way with songs like “Bad Girl,” which caused a ruckus in 1985 with its brazen lyrics about female sexual desire.
The story continues to bounce along nicely while Mui’s topping the charts, winning acting awards in prestige films such as Stanley Kwan’s “Rouge” (1987) and becoming the dear friend and confidante of Leslie Cheung (Terrance Lau), the legendary music and movie superstar whose tragic suicide preceded Mui’s death by 10 months.
Things are fine while the tempo’s up but aside from the affecting depiction of Mui’s close bond with Ann, who died of cervical cancer in 2000, there’s not much emotional spark in Mui’s personal affairs. Presented as a lonely soul who was unable to find lasting love, Mui at first drifts through a doomed relationship with Japanese singer Yuki Godo, a fictional name given to a character based on Kondo Masahiko and played by Ayumu Nakajima. She later spends uneventful time in Thailand with the bland Ben (Tony Yang). It also seems strange for the intimate, all-trusting conversations between Leslie Cheung and Mui to never venture into the area of Cheung’s sexuality, which he spoke about publicly during the 1990s.
The frequent use of archival footage both helps and hinders. It’s great to see clips of Mui throwing herself into performing and charity work, but the intoxicating zeal and energy of those real-life moments rarely comes through in the dramatization. Wong, who was chosen for the role after a three-year search and only publicly revealed as the star a few months ago, bears a strong physical resemblance to Mui and does well enough in sections depicting Mui’s giddy rise to superstardom. But her performance, as directed by Leung from a screenplay that is reverential and protective of its subject, is too often restrained when the moment calls for the kind of brash, brave and raw emotion Mui was famous and beloved for.
Never in question is the film’s love for a time when everything seemed possible in Hong Kong and artists such as Mui and Cheung inspired fans by speaking up and standing proudly for what they believed in. The film cannot help but match the sadness of Mui’s passing with a deep sense of loss for the heart and soul of the place this Daughter of Hong Kong called home.