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Anita by Jay Seaver

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by Jay Seaver

"A capable tribute to a Hong Kong superstar."
3 stars

"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.

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originally posted: 11/16/21 07:32:17
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  12-Nov-2021 (PG)

Directed by
  Longmond Leung

Written by
  Longmond Leung
  Jack Ng

  Louise Wong
  Louis Koo
  Fish Liew
  Terrance Lau

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