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Monday, December 30, 2013

My 10 favourite Anita Mui film roles

The Cantopop superstar Anita Mui passed away from cancer exactly ten years ago.

I remember what I did ten years ago when I heard of the news. It was morning, my family and I were heading off to Singapore for vacation. Her death cast a pall upon my heart, that day, on the road to Singapore, the songs of Anita Mui constantly played on radio.

While I grew up listening to her songs (Bad Girl, with the memorable "Why, why, tell me why" lyrics, was a childhood favourite) and had even attended one of her concerts in Singapore, I knew Anita Mui more as an actress who starred in many great Hong Kong film classics.

It's been a decade since her passing. I will sift through my own memories and list out ten of my favourite Anita Mui films (or film roles), from earliest to latest.

1) ROUGE 胭脂扣 (1988)

This Stanley Kwan film is an important Hong Kong film that's universally regarded as one of Anita Mui's greatest cinematic achievements (she won Best Actress awards in both Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards) and marked her "arrival" as an important actress. Co-starring screen legend Leslie Cheung (who also died the same year in April), this is one of those human/ ghost love stories that Hong Kong used to make a lot in the 80s and 90s.

The film also won the Golden Montgolfiere at the 3 Nantes Film Festival. (this year, the award was won by Koji Fukada's AU REVOIR, L'ETE, which I had a cameo appearance in, really!)

This is her singing the theme song of ROUGE.

2) THE GREATEST LOVER 公子多情 (1988)

A wacky comedy that came out the same year as ROUGE. You have no idea how many times I have rewatched this with my cousins when I was a child, laughing through the funny scenes over and over despite having watched it countless times. THE GREATEST LOVER pairs up Chow Yun Fat and Anita Mui.

An illegal immigrant from China (Chow Yun Fat) is trained into becoming a suave debonaire gentleman by his frustrated instructor (Mui), then an unexpected romance occurs. A lowbrow gender-reversed remake of MY FAIR LADY (Chow Yun Fat eating feces to scare a tiger away... um, okay) But I do remember it being a sweet film about friendship and love.

When I typed out its Chinese title on Youtube, I'm shocked to see dozens of links to the entire film. So popular huh?


Anita Mui plays Yoshiko Kawashima in this biopic of a Manchu princess brought up as a Japanese and served as a spy for the Japanese Kwantung Army and Manchukuo during World War 2.

Complex and morally ambiguous, Mui's performance does not romanticize Kawashima, but instead make her product of circumstances beyond her own control, with flashes of resentment simmering beneath her detached facade. It's strange why she did not get more accolades for this. (Co-star Andy Lau was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Golden Horse)

Check out her defiance and contempt for the court when put on trial.

4) AU REVOIR, MON AMOUR 何日君再來 (1991)

I actually watched this last year. There's nothing much to talk about regarding the whole film. (It's an epic period romance set in World War 2, great production values, but strangely-paced) The final shot in Hokkaido (?) is really beautiful.

The main reason why I got into watching this film was because of my sudden obsession with its theme song.

The true majesty of the song can only be experienced on how live performances, where she usually combined it and Jackie Cheung's ballad "Li Xiang Lan 李香兰" (named after the Japanese actress) into a medley.

5) JUSTICE, MY FOOT 審死官 (1992)

The first screen pairing of Stephen Chow and Anita Mui that I can think of. This is a megahit of its time that everyone around me couldn't stop talking about during its release. Chow played Sung Sai Kit, the best lawyer of Guangdong, while Mui played Madam Sung, his ass-kicking wife. I think Anita Mui was a great foil for Chow, bringing the necessary gravitas and depth to a supposedly simple role. Instead of being the "flower vase" that most actresses would end up becoming in Stephen Chow's earlier films, she held her own, and was his absolute equal.

This film was directed by the auteur Johnnie To... long before he became the Johnnie To of today.

6) FIGHT BACK TO SCHOOL 3 逃學威龍3之龍過雞年 (1993)

Another pairing with Stephen Chow that came out less than a year after JUSTICE, MY FOOT. I remember this being a Chinese New Year film, I loved it so much as a kid that I ended up watching it twice in the cinemas.

The last film in Chow's highly popular FIGHT BACK TO SCHOOL trilogy, the first two films were riffs on 21 JUMP STREET, where Chow goes undercover in a school, this film has Chow going undercover as the husband of a wealthy socialite (played by Mui) It's a strange parody of Basic Instinct. She and Chow had a lot of chemistry as a comic pairing.

Here's a scene from the film.

7 and 8) THE HEROIC TRIO 東方三俠 (1993) / EXECUTIONERS 現代豪俠傳 (1993)

I cannot even imagine what was it like to be a Hong Kong film viewer back in the day. Can you imagine watching THE HEROIC TRIO and FIGHT BACK TO SCHOOL and JUSTICE MY FOOT within the span of 5-6 months?

In 1993, Anita Mui was in five films, including Johnnie To's THE HEROIC TRIO and its much darker and depressing sequel EXECUTIONERS.

In the Heroic Trio and Executioners, Mui played the mask-wearing crime-fighting heroine Wonder Woman, who crosses paths with a shotgun-toting bounty hunter called the Thief Hunter (!!) played by Maggie Cheung, and the troubled, morally conflicted Invisible Woman (!!!!) played by Michelle Yeoh.

My memories are vague. But the first film is a fun action-filled caper that 9-year-old me rather enjoyed, while the second film is an ultraviolent post-apocalyptic story where Takeshi Kaneshiro gets decapitated in his second scene

9) WU YEN 鍾無艷 (2001)

In this film, directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai, Anita Mui played the Emperor Qi... as in, she really played a guy in the film. Kinda like what Brigitte Lin did as "Invincible Asia" in Swordsman 2...?

Her comedic performance was breathtaking. Here's what Shelly Kraicer said in his review.

"At first glance, Wu Yen appears to be a Stephen Chiau-style movie that situates Anita Mui in the typical Chiau role (Chiau was the king of "moleitau" or verbal nonsense comedy in Hong Kong in the '90s). This is an ultra-high speed verbal comedy that relies on the quality of the writing, as well as the performances by the three principles. Verbal delivery is Stephen Chiau speed, hurtling along from line to line with barely a gap for breath. Anita Mui can handle the challenge brilliantly. She's hilarious, furiously energetic, and loose, all at once. She plays two male roles (the Emperor and the ghost of his ancestor), and manages a nice evocation of male swagger, authority, and goofy irresponsibility without lapsing into tiresome caricature. Mui's formidable technique frees her, even in non-verbal scenes, to express a broad range of expressions just with her face and body alone. Who else could manage this kind of sustained, bravura comic performance that in addition creates a character with real depth? Mui even manages to pull off a double-drag scene, in which the Emperor must disguise himself as a concubine: it's as much fun as can be imagined to watch Mui playing a man playing (badly) a woman ... (the joys of mise-en-abîme, if you tend to French deconstruction). A glorious performance that (although it's very early to say this) should put her in the running for best actress of 2001.

(a year later, co-star Sammi Cheng picked up an award from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards for her performance as the titular Wu Yen)

10) JULY RHAPSODY 男人四十 (2001)

This Ann Hui-directed film was Anita Mui's final film appearance. This film follows a secondary school teacher (Jacky Cheung) facing midlife crisis, exploring his marriage (wife played by Mui) and temptation from one of his students (played by Karena Lam).

I'm sad to say that I never got to finish this film in its entirety. (I think I was only 15 minutes into it before my VCD went crazy, yes, those days we watched most films on VCD) However, Anita Mui's performance was much lauded, earning her Best Actress nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse, while winning the Best Actress Award at the Changchun Film Festival.

Aside from that, JULY RHAPSODY marked the debut of Karena Lam, who became one of my favourite actresses of the 2000s. Having retired from screen after her marriage, Karena Lam's presence is sorely missed.

Apparently the ending song is a duet between Mui and her co-star Jacky Cheung.


By the way, she was great in Tsui Hark's underrated A BETTER TOMORROW 3 (a prequel of A BETTER TOMORROW 1 which chronicles how Chow Yun Fat's Mark Gor became the Mark Gor we knew and love, of course it was a woman).

The film's theme song is one of Anita Mui's most popular songs.