Crouching Tiger producer Bill Kong and top model Louise Wong revive Canto-pop legend Anita Mui's story in a film that reveals her last days and celebrates her life
Read an interview with producer Bill Kong and top model Louise Wong about creating new film––Anita––which celebrates the life of the late Hong Kong Canto-pop icon, Anita Mui. Anita is released in Hong Kong cinemas on Friday, November 12, 2021.
When Louise (Wong) got the call from Edko Film executive director Bill Kong that she had been chosen, out of thousands of candidates, to portray Canto-pop icon, Anita Mui, in her biopic, she bought a ticket to Thailand immediately. But it wasn’t to celebrate: she was overwhelmed. “My hands were shaking. I was very scared,” Wong says. “I stayed in the hotel for one week and spent the first two days crying. I didn’t know what to do.”
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That she looks the part is without question. The fashion model, who is the only Hongkonger to have won the Elite Model Look Asia Pacific regional contest, which she took in 2006, and who has since been a favourite among brands including Shanghai Tang, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani, has features—the sculpted cheekbones, snub nose and deep-set eyes—that eerily conjure up Mui’s face.
But to play the late diva takes more than looks. “Mui is unreachable in so many ways; singing, dancing and acting,” says Wong, who makes her acting debut in the simply titled Anita. “I’m nowhere near. I was venturing into a whole new field.” Her nerves are understandable: nearly two decades after her death from cervical cancer in 2003, Mui remains a legend. She is one of the only three Hong Kong icons to have a bronze statue erected in the Avenue of Stars; the other two are Bruce Lee and the cartoon character McDull.
Mui’s career began at the age of four, when she would perform Chinese opera and pop songs in nightclubs, theatres and on the streets to help provide for her widowed mother and three siblings. In 1982, aged 19, she won the first New Talent Singing Awards and released her first album Debts of Love. The following year, she took to the international stage, winning the Asian Music Special Award and Tokyo Broadcasting System Award at the Tokyo Music Festival, and never looking back.
The Hong Kong singing competition was also the beginning of one of Mui’s most important relationships: after winning the contest, she was introduced to fashion designer Eddie Lau, who would create looks for her music videos and sold-out concerts. He was responsible for her diverse costumes: the boyish outfit with a tie and a coat for the song The Years Flow Like Water, an Arabian goddess for Evil Girl, the spike-studded bustier for Flaming Red Lips, and a resplendent white wedding gown in her final concerts. While the singer’s bold fashion choices and stage looks, and her deep voice revolutionised Canto-pop in the 1980s, she was equally famed for her acting, winning the Best Actress title at the Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in Rouge, a 1987 film in which she appeared alongside fellow icon (and her close friend) Leslie Cheung.
Mui was at the height of her career when she was cast in the lead role for Kong and Zhang Yimou’s martial arts film The House of Flying Daggers. Kong was flying high after the global success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which he had produced. “I had tea with [Anita] in May 2003. She wanted to make a better, more glorious movie,” says Kong, who first met Mui in the early 1980s when she helped to promote his films. “Zhang said, ‘I’ve seen Mui’s films. I like her.’ We were elated to have Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi and Mui. A perfect cast. We immediately signed. We were all so looking forward to working with her.”
It was not to be. That winter, Mui’s doctor advised her against taking up the role. She made her final public appearances at a series of eight concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum in November. In a white wedding gown designed by Lau, she famously stated she had spent her life “married to the stage”, and closed the shows with Sunset Melody, a song about regret and the vicissitudes of life. She died on December 30.
“I [almost] couldn’t make Flying Daggers,” Kong says. “We immediately changed the script. We didn’t think of looking for someone else [to replace her], and we dedicated the film to her. I always felt that I owed her a film. Whenever I heard her songs on the radio, I felt like she was haunting me.”
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For more than a decade, Kong had thought of filming her biopic. “But we couldn’t find the right actress and scriptwriter,” he says. “A film like this takes five to eight years to make. There weren’t a lot of big feature films about Hong Kong, and I wanted to make one. In 2015, I felt it was time. I didn’t know if I could work on another film that might take seven years to make,” says Kong, who turns 69 this year.
It took Kong and director Longman Leung two years to find the right “Anita”. The pair auditioned thousands of people from around the world. The candidates underwent six months of “Anita” training, learning her songs and moves. While Wong had had no prior training and could have continued her lucrative modelling career rather than take on a new challenge with no guarantee of success, she gave it her all. “At the final round, we had a full dress rehearsal of the final scene. The candidates had to deliver the same ‘wedding vow’ that Mui gave in her final concert and sing Sunset Melody,” Kong explains. “After Wong delivered her performance, everyone was in tears. We weren’t looking for someone who looks exactly like Mui—look at Louise, she’s so tall— but someone who can bring out Mui’s essence and character.”
When Wong returned from her Thailand escape, she began another six months of singing, dancing and acting training. Despite her inexperience in those fields, she says her modelling background gave her the confidence she needed. “Being ready to present my best performance once I face the camera on set is definitely a skill I acquired from being a model,” she says.
The 137-minute Anita portrays some of Mui’s most defining moments of her fleeting life: her childhood performances, the father-daughter-like relationship with Lau, her friendship with Cheung, her futile romances, and being catapulted to superstardom. It also celebrates Hong Kong, with the team recreating versions of the city in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s in meticulous detail: now-demolished buildings, fax machines and even slang from those generations appear in the film. Kong says Anita is his most challenging production to date, but he was determined to “make a film to tell people who knew Mui not to forget her, and those who don’t know her about her legendary life”.
And even though Wong was too young to have been a contemporary fan of the legend she is portraying, she has been forever changed by the role. “As someone born [in 1990], I missed Mui’s most glorious days. Now because of this film, I’ve got to know an important figure who contributed so much to society and the performing arts world,” Wong says. “Because of this film, I’ve become a fan. Mui kept pursuing innovation. She had so much passion for the stage. These qualities are what the next generation of icons should learn from.”