Monday, November 15, 2021


How big a star was Anita Mui Yim-Fong in Hong Kong? There are three statues at the end of the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui. One is cartoon piglet McDull, for the kids. One is Bruce Lee. The other is this:
(Aside: Just looking through my photos from my trip to Hong Kong from March 2019, I am reminded that, one, it was an amazing experience, and two, it seems like forever ago between the news out of the SAR and spending so much of the past year and a half stuck in my apartment)

I'm not sure we saw that much of this Anita Mui in the biopic that bears her name which opened worldwide (including AMC Boston Common) this past weekend - aside from actress Louise Wong being a very conventionally pretty model compared to the woman occasionally described as "The Ugly Queen of Pop", this lady is defiant and in your face while the character in the movie is mostly a hard working performer and a good collaborator. I've got no doubt Anita Mui was that, too, but in that case there should have been some contrast between those personae. Instead, she's kind of reduced to a generic, if very successful, pop star, with the fact that she had songs like "Bad Girl" banned from the radio for being too sexy just a thing that happened.

That doesn't make it a bad movie, realy, but it does mean that the review winds up doing a really bad job of talking about the movie you've seen rather than the one you haven't; as you see below, there are a lot of places where I feel like Longmand Leung and company could have dug in and made a story about Anita Mui that brought out what made her special and how she was such a vital and important part of Hong Kong even if most people outside of the colony/region mostly knew her as Jackie Chan's co-star in Rumble in the Bronx. This really isn't the definitive Anita Mui story, even if it's probably the only one that can get made in Hong Kong today. It's a great-looking one that's solidly produced, though - it highlights why she's beloved beyond just being a pop star and its eerily familiar last act (the 2003 SARS epidemic was a major backdrop to the last year of her life) gives it one heck of an entry point for the younger generation to connect with it. It works for what it is.

Something that kind of shocked me was just how little with her in it that I had on my shelves - just Moon Warriors and Drunken Master II; I somehow don't even have Rumble in the Bronx! I'd meant to watch a couple films the night before just to get a feel for her rather than comparing Louise Wong's performance to a dim memory, but the options were pretty thin, even when you included US streaming services. I'll probably try and correct that with my next DDDHouse order, but it's slim pickings there (no The Heroic Trio, for instance). Hopefully Panorama or someone gets a few discs out the door to coincide with this hitting video in a few months, because I am ready for them.

Also, it was a pretty good crowd for a Cantonese-language film, which always seems to do less well than the Mandarin-language ones at Boston Common. Part of that may be that it's only getting one or two shows a day rather than the three or four a new release usually gets in its first week of release, but it was nice to see this with an audience that had some investment. It probably won't get more than a week there - the app doesn't even show screenings on Thursday the 18th - so if you want to catch this one, do it this week (although CMC does seem to get their releases to US streams fairly quickly).


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Anita is a perfectly fine musician biography for someone who seemingly should have something a lot grander. Anita Mui was a huge star in Hong Kong - commercially successful at a level few if any have been since and envelope-pushing on top of that - and this movie could almost be about any pop star who died young. It's a glossy, enjoyable movie of that type, and seems to be going over well in its native territory, but outsiders won't necessarily get a sense of what a big deal she was.

After a brief glimpse at Mui preparing for her farewell concert, the film makes a stop in 1969, with 5-year-old Mui Yim-Fong and her big sister Oi-Fong singing at Hong Kong's Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park, before skipping forward to 1982, when the pair are already a veteran nightclub sister act, to the point where Yim-Fong develops calluses on her vocal chords. Oi-Fong (Fish Liew Chi-Yu) encourages Yim-Fong (Louise Wong Lo-Yiu) to join her in applying to a TV talent show whose winner will receive a recording contract, applying with the English names "Ann" and "Anita". Ann is rejected, but Anita eventually wins the deal, soon meeting a number of people who would be close friends and collaborators throughout her life: Label executive So Hau-Leung (Lam Ka-Tung), costumer Eddie Lau Pui-Kei (Louis Koo Tin-Lok), and fellow entertainer Leslie Cheung (Terrance Lau Chun-Him).

Anita Mui seldom had a down period after that, spending the rest of the 1980s firmly atop the Cantopop charts while also doing two or three movies a year, and continuing to release albums even after she stopped doing live concerts in the 1990s. That sort of success creates a bit of a dilemma for director Longmond Leung Lok-Man and co-writer Jack Ng Wai-Lun, especially when one considers that she apparently wasn't a songwriter (and if she is closely associated with any, the film does not give them any screen time). They wind up trying to build a story out of her personal life - her romance with Japanese pop star Godo Yuki (Ayumu Nakajima) is given some time, and an argument with a gangster while in a later relationship with gang-adjacent beau "Ben" (Yo Yang) leads to a self-imposed Thai exile - but they never find the hook that sets Anita apart from anyone else who wins a talent show and exploded to such a degree.

The frustrating thing is, looking at the movie and reading a little bit about her life suggests that there is actually a ton of great material that they chose not to use, for one reason or another: What if they took the comment that she never knew her father and thus the likes of Mr. So and Eddie became father figures, and crossed that with how she's been working since the age of four to support her family - does this help explain the burn-out that led her to leave live performance? You'd think from watching the movie that Ann left show business when she was rejected from the talent competition in 1982, but she had a modest music and film career of her own, and there could be a story there (her life also intersects and parallels that of fellow icon Leslie Cheung's). Heck, she arguably parallels Hong Kong itself, starting out poor and grimy and transmuting that into glamor before being one of the celebrities that stayed during the handover and never made a bid for success in Hollywood or Beijing. Bits of all these things come through, and one suspects that the heavy hands of both China and the entertainment industry inspire dancing around some subjects, but as with many biographies, trying to cover the entirety of even a relatively short life often means that none of the facets that made that life interesting get much time in the forefront

The film is handsomely mounted and fun to wallow in, at least; Longmond Leung teamed with Luk Kim-Ching to make a trio of slick thrillers before taking on this project, and Anita is even more polished. There's a gloss to even the disreputable spaces and a knack for capturing different facets of the city, a shininess makes it a fine nostalgia trip, paralleling Hong Kong's rise and indulging its local audience's fond memories of the time. Leung and his team seldom dawdle over any particular moment but don't particularly seem to rush. The occasional cut to actual footage of Anita's concerts and appearances emphasizes just what an impressive recreation this can be, even if it hints at a rawness and vitality the film can't always match.

That's not a dig at Louise Wong; the relative newcomer playing Anita isn't given a whole lot to do because of how stardom often seems to just happen to her, but when she gets a chance to show that there's something defiant about this woman - there's an annoyed look folks may recognize from Mui's comedic roles - she manages, but that doesn't happen nearly often enough. She and Fish Liew play well off each other as sisters, enough so to pique one's interest in the version of this story that focuses on their relationship; the same goes for Terrance Lau, who captures both the exuberance of young Leslie Cheung and the self-doubt that will eventually eat it alive. Louis Koo has a featured role as Eddie and he's a little more theatrical in his combination of playfulness and gravitas, not above making a meal of the sort of mentor role that's got to be big enough to inspire an all-time great.

As someone only a little familiar with Anita Mui - the sort that has seen her in the likes of Drunken Master II and The Heroic Trio and who has noticed the reverence with which other Hong Kong legends speak of her - I wanted more from this movie, for it to make a case for her greatness and show how she achieved it. Instead, it's a reminder, and a chance for folks who were there to relive it in sharp digital clarity rather than on grainy VHS, and from its apparent popularity in Hong Kong, it manages that fairly well.

Also on eFilmCritic

No comments: