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The Ever-living Anita Mui

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

There's a certain bittersweet irony that in Rouge, Anita Mui's most acclaimed film role, the star plays a ghost from Hong Kong's bygone past lingering into the present day. It's been almost five years since the world lost the 40-year-old Anita Mui Yim Fong to complications from cervical cancer, yet in Hong Kong - and indeed the entire Chinese-speaking world - the woman once dubbed "The Madonna of Asia" continues to be an almost palpable presence. Countless memorial shrines, compilation CDs, even a Mainland TV biopic have kept her spirit alive and center-stage in the East Asian pop culture landscape. In life her flashy, constantly evolving onstage personas earned her another nickname - "The Ever-changing Anita." In death, her immortal place in entertainment history might well warrant a new title - "The Ever-living Anita."

Solid Gold Idol

Her rise to fame is the stuff of fairy tales. Mui Yim Fong was born October 10, 1963 to a family of modest means. Her father died when she was only five, and Anita helped support her mother and four siblings by performing Cantonese Opera and pop songs on the streets of Hong Kong, eventually dropping out of school to keep food on the table. For the next thirteen years, Anita and her older sister Ann worked the nightclub circuit, singing whenever and wherever they could find work. After more than a decade of grim prospects, Anita suddenly found herself on the fast track to stardom when TVB held its inaugural New Talent Singing Awards in 1982. Beating out over 3,000 contestants, Anita took top honors and the grand prize, a record deal with Capital Artists.

In addition to Anita, Capital Artists signed another promising talent in 1982, a young man named Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing. Anita and Leslie became fast friends, and although they remained solo acts, the pair quickly set about reshaping the Cantopop landscape in their own image. Along with Alan Tam, another close friend, Capital's two new stars set off an idol craze of Beatlemania proportions in Hong Kong. Anita's first album, Crimson, sold a strong 250,000 copies, with each subsequent album snowballing to higher and higher profits. By the release of her fourth album, 1985's Bad Girl, the Anita craze had shifted into high gear. Bad Girl not only sold an astonishing 400,000 copies in Hong Kong alone, it also cemented her reputation as the "Bad Girl" of Cantopop. The title track's risque lyrics and Anita's often gaudy, domineering onstage presence may have earned her a temporary ban in Mainland China, but her undeniable singing talent, charisma, and unconventional looks earned her a devoted following and a deserved place in Asian music history. In what is perhaps the greatest testament to her star power, Anita was named Best Female Artist five years in a row from 1985 to 1989 at TVB's Jade Solid Gold Top 10 Awards.

Let's Make Movies

Any good Hong Kong singer worth their salt enjoys a second career as a movie star, and Anita was no exception. Yet her film career was exceptional, because Anita was not merely a singer trying to pass herself off as an actress. She proved to be a natural on camera, easily essaying comedic performances and serious dramatic roles with seeming effortlessness. After all, who else can claim to have upstaged Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan in their own movies?

Right out of the acting gate, Anita demonstrated her dual knack for comedy and drama with supporting roles in two very different but both wildly successful films. 1983's Shaw Brothers smash Let's Make Laugh is Kenny Bee and Cecilia Yip's show, but Anita makes the most of a limited role in an essentially formulaic romantic comedy. She made an even stronger impression in the following year's Behind the Yellow Line opposite her pal Leslie Cheung and another rising superstar, Maggie Cheung. Anita's turn as the unrelenting third point in a complicated love triangle earned her a Best Supporting Actress win at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

The next few years saw Anita continue to alternate between screwball comedies and romantic drama. She holds her own against Chow Yun Fat and Joey Wong in the darkly ridiculous 100 Ways to Murder Your Wife, and she elevates the most predictable of situation comedies in Trouble Couples. But it was her re-teaming with Leslie Cheung in the 1987 supernatural romance Rouge that established Anita Mui as an A-list actress. Director Stanley Kwan's unusually affecting tale casts Anita and Leslie as star-crossed lovers in 1930s Hong Kong who agree to a suicide pact. When only Anita finds herself in the afterlife, she begins a ghostly search for her beloved that spans 50 years of Hong Kong's history. A poignant balance of fantasy, mystery and romance anchored by Anita's haunting performance, Rouge is still remembered as a high water mark of Hong Kong Cinema and earned its star a much-deserved Best Actress trophy at both the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards.

Ever-changing Fortunes

After simultaneously conquering the Cantopop music scene and racing to the highest ranks of movie stardom, Anita began to fall victim to the inevitable fatigue, pressure, rumors and scandals that plague any major celebrity. In the years following a record-setting 28 consecutive evenings of concerts, an Opening Ceremonies performance at the Seoul Olympics, a sellout show in Hammersmith, England (an incredible feat for an Asian pop music celebrity), and an endless stream of tabloid gossip linking her to everything from illicit lovers to Triad connections, Anita announced her retirement in 1991. Had this truly been the close of her already amazing career, her place in entertainment history would already have been secure, and her constantly changing fashion tastes and song styles over the past decade had already earned her the epitaph "The Ever-changing Anita." But like so many other celebrities, the world was not about to let her rest so easily. She kicked off her "retirement" by shattering the record for number of consecutive concerts she herself established, performing 33 straight evenings of farewell shows. The ever-changing Anita was destined for even more changes to come.

She continued to be a prominent presence in Hong Kong movie houses, taking major roles in films as diverse as Tsui Hark's A Better Tomorrow III, Jackie Chan's The Canton Godfather (a.k.a. Miracles), and Corey Yuen's Shanghai Shanghai. She memorably played the ruthless title role in Kawashima Yoshiko, an historical biopic about the Manchurian princess and wartime Japanese collaborator. Her most enjoyable movie outing from this period, however, is likely her dual roles in the 1991 comic-book fantasy Savior of the Soul. This weird and wacky action vehicle lets Anita play both the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails love interest of Andy Lau and her demented twin sister, a crazed sorceress with a knack for mortally wounding herself with her own magic spells.

Savior of the Soul is an entertaining enough but sometimes messily uneven superhero movie, a genre Hong Kong cinema seldom nails. One of the few exceptions is Johnnie To's celebrated 1993 adventure flick The Heroic Trio. Anita headlines the title band of superheroines as Wonder Woman (no, not that Wonder Woman), who teams up with Invisible Girl (Michelle Yeoh) and Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung) to combat an undead Ming dynasty eunuch threatening modern-day China. The star power of the three leads, coupled with To's directorial panache, made The Heroic Trio and its follow-up, The Executioners instant cult classics.

Queen of Comedy

The biggest box office success to showcase Anita's acting abilities, however, was the previous year's Justice, My Foot! . 1992 was the Year of Stephen Chow in Hong Kong; Chow owned all of the top five highest-grossing pictures of the year, and Justice, My Foot! (directed by Heroic Trio helmer Johnnie To) was the Number One Champ. Chow stars as a shifty Qing dynasty lawyer at odds with his overbearing wife (Mui), who insists he follow more straight-and-narrow legal practices. As his less-than patiently suffering better half, she naturally keeps her husband on his toes, but more impressive is the way in which Anita gives Stephen Chow a run for his comedic money. It's probably impossible to completely steal the spotlight from a manic force like Chow, but Anita Mui comes closer than anyone else.

How do you follow up stealing scenes from Stephen Chow? Steal them from Jackie Chan. In what is perhaps her best-known role in the West, the then 31-year-old Anita stepped into the shoes of the then 40-year-old Jackie's stepmother in Drunken Master II (1994). As a willing collaborator in her stepson Wong Fei Hung's mischievous schemes, Anita gives what is easily the best comedic performance of her career. Forever manipulating and outmaneuvering her stern and humorless husband (Ti Lung), Anita almost magically invokes Lucille Ball in a 19th-century Chinese setting. It's so endearing a performance that Jackie has to keep the character offscreen for the entire climax to prevent her from diverting the audience's eye from his trademark acrobatics.

Drunken Master II owed no small part of its success to the combination of Jackie's jaw-dropping stunts and Anita's comedic charms, and the two returned for a contemporarily set encore in the next year's Rumble in the Bronx. The film proved to be Jackie's breakthrough to complete global stardom, and served for many Westerners as an indirect introduction to Anita's talents, as well. She also found a degree of underground popularity abroad thanks to a few lesser wuxia pictures that made the bootleg and independent label rounds in America during the mid-1990s, Sammo Hung's Moon Warriors and Benny Chan's The Magic Crane.

Final Curtain

Following another dramatic performance in Ann Hui's 18 Springs (1997), Anita took a break from the silver screen, although she was never far from the public eye. Her musical "retirement" had been moot since 1994; she continued to release albums in both Cantonese and Mandarin, and her ongoing stage concerts featured the increasingly eclectic costumes that were her stock-in-trade. In 2001, Anita returned to cinema screens in a handful of pictures, the standouts of which were Johnnie To's gender-bending period comedy Wu Yen and Ann Hui's low-key family drama July Rhapsody. Whether she was mugging it up as a Warring States prince opposite fox fairy Cecilia Cheung and Amazon warrior Sammi Cheng, or coming to grips with a marital crisis with Jacky Cheung and Karena Lam, Anita proved she still had what it took to hold her own with a new generation of Hong Kong starlets.

The tabloids continued to hound her, with gossip about her perpetual spinsterhood being favorite fodder, in addition to more unsavory rumors about drug addiction and plastic surgeries. So it was in September 2003 that the 39-year-old star reluctantly made public that she was battling cervical cancer, which had claimed her sister Ann in 2000. Publicly, Anita stated that she expected to beat the disease, but to the world's dismay it quickly became clear that her time was short. Unable to complete her role in Zhang Yimou's highly anticipated wuxia film House of Flying Daggers, Anita instead chose to devote her final days to her fans, holding eight farewell concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum in December 2003. For her last-ever costume change, the ever-changing, ever-single Anita appeared in a white wedding gown. In a moment of rare poignancy, she symbolically wed her one life partner: the stage.

Weeks later, Anita Mui was gone, following the untimely passing of her friend and fellow legend Leslie Cheung by a mere eight months. The news of her death was broken by none other than Jackie Chan, who tearfully called 2003 "a tragic year for Hong Kong entertainment."

She left behind her a legacy unmatched by few performers, be they Eastern, Western, stage, or screen. Disproving the Shakespearian adage that the good men do is interred with their bones, the media no longer remembers the gossip and allegations surrounding her life. Today, Anita Mui is remembered for her charity work, establishing medical care facilities throughout Asia and America, donating her concert proceeds to battle SARS, and writing a book to benefit children's cancer research. And of course, she is remembered for entertaining a generation of fans worldwide. But most important of all, perhaps, she is simply remembered.

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Published September 8, 2008

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