Model-turned-actress Louise Wong made her acting debut in "Anita" (2021)

Anita 梅艷芳 (2021) Review

The long-awaited Anita Mui biopic is finally here and I must say it was a movie that exceeds my expectation.

Besides, Hong Kong cinema isn’t primarily known for making biopics — at least, by mainstream standard — but director Longman Leung, the one-half directing duo alongside Sunny Luk in the Cold War <寒戰> franchise and Helios <赤道> (2015) making his solo effort, shows great confidence venturing out of his comfort zone for the first time. He may have followed the usual biopic formula commonly seen in most like-minded movies. But his overall absorbing direction is a cut above the rest, as he navigates the plot (Leung also served as a co-writer alongside Dante Lam’s regular scribe Jack Ng) with the right emotional hook and of course, a strong nostalgia factor that captured the glory days of Hong Kong of yesteryears.

In Anita <梅艷芳>, the movie begins in the late 1960s when little Anita Mui and her elder sister, Ann have already proven themselves as talented child performers. The story is then shifted to their adult lives, where Mui (newcomer Louise Wong) and Ann (Fish Liew) are given the opportunity to take part in a singing contest to showcase their talents. But Mui is the only one who emerged as a winner while Ann subsequently backed down and decided to live a normal life.

As Mui’s stardom begins to blossom, record producer Mr So (Lam Ka-Tung), as well as manager Florence (Miriam Yeung) and stylist (Louis Koo), are interested to mould her into a superstar. Within a short period, her fame scales new heights as she belts out successful hit singles and attracted sizable fans to watch her perform in concerts.

Leung also covers Mui’s career as an actress, notably her Golden Horse Awards-winning turn in Stanley Kwan’s Rouge <胭脂扣> (1988), where she co-stars alongside her best friend Leslie Cheung (Terrance Lau, who made his feature-length debut in last year’s acclaimed Beyond The Dream <幻愛>). The late Anita Mui, who died of cervical cancer at the age of 40 in December 2003, is no stranger to numerous tabloid news too, where her personal life is just as colourful as her illustrious singing and acting careers. Mui, of course, has gone through a lot of relationships but Leung chooses to settle for two. This includes her brief romance with Japanese singer Yuki Godo (Ayumu Nakajima, where his otherwise fictional role is actually based on Kondo Masahiko). Her other lover is Ben Lam (Kwok-Bun) played by Tony Yang, where he famously saved her from a triad leader (David Siu of TVB’s The Greed Of Man <大時代> fame) after the latter slapped her in the face for refusing to sing a song for him in a karaoke bar.

Louis Koo and Louise Wong in "Anita" (2021)
Louis Koo and Louise Wong in “Anita” (2021)

Not everything works in Anita <梅艷芳> and this is especially true with the way Leung depicts Mui’s friendship with Leslie Cheung. Not to mention Terrance Lau’s performance as the late Leslie Cheung is rather a letdown. The same also goes with Tony Yang’s lacklustre role as Ben Lam, where his extended scene with Louise Wong’s Anita Mui as they both lay low in Thailand is another weak factor in this movie.

Speaking of Louise Wong, it’s hard to believe that a newcomer, let alone the one who has no prior acting experience manages to pull off such an impossible feat. And that is playing someone as massively popular and iconic as the late Anita Mui. Wong, who works primarily as a model before taking a quantum leap to try acting for the first time, is a great find. She successfully captures everything that characterised Anita Mui’s unique personality ranging from her mannerism to her gesture and speech pattern. If that’s not enough, she proves to be a natural on stage as she emulates Mui’s dancing and singing styles, both of which Wong has reportedly taken more than six months of training to make them right. Although Wong did some singing in the movie, her voice is actually mixed with Mui’s original recordings and another singer — a sublime strategy that works so convincingly when I watch her perform on the big screen.

Her co-stars deserve equal praises too and one of them has to be Fish Liew, who delivers solid support as Mui’s elder sister, Ann. Then, there’s the ubiquitous Louis Koo and frankly, I didn’t expect much from him, thinking he just showing up for a thankless role as Mui’s long-serving stylist, Eddie Lau. But it turns out otherwise, as he surprises me with a better-than-expected performance.

From the technical point of view, Longman Leung has certainly gone the extra length to recapture the good old days of Hong Kong with the help of cinematographer Anthony Pun, production designer Pater Wong and costume designer Dora Ng. The CGI is used extensively, coupled with practical outdoor sets, particularly in the vivid recreation of the bustling neon-heavy streets of Hong Kong during the 1980s era.

The road to fulfilling Anita <梅艷芳> was a real challenge, beginning with the wide talent search to find the right actress to play the late Anita Mui. Again, I’m glad they found Louise Wong and I really hope she can end up with plenty of wins come awards season.

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