by Martin Wong, special to SF Gate
Friday, January 16, 2004
Remembering Anita Mui
Thousands of fans poured into the streets of Hong Kong last weekend to pay their last respects to movie star and Canto-pop singer Anita Mui. The Hong Kong superstar had a reputation for being sexy without being a stereotypical
China doll. Unlike most Hong Kong divas, who build their careers on being vulnerable waifs, the Ugly Queen of Pop's image was built on her bold attitude and feisty style. Her biggest hit, "Bad Girl," was banned from Hong
Kong radio in 1985.
Mui's swagger was also evident on film, where she lit up the screen opposite Hong Kong's biggest actors, including Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. She made a huge impression on me when I saw her in Johnnie To's "The Executioners" (1993), which featured Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie
Hong Kong's top female actors, as superheroes. In one scene, Mui's masked Wonder Woman character oozes femininity when protecting babies from an invisible threat. Then, in another, she is pure toughness, surviving in a
prison cell by squeezing a rodent until it drips blood, which she drops into her mouth as if she were squishing grapes.
Mui could also deliver the goods in comedy, starring in a string of Stephen Chow films, as well as in drama, winning Hong Kong's Best Actress award in 1987 for her role as a ghost who falls in love with Chan (Leslie Cheung) in
art-house director Stanley Kwan's "Rouge."
I drove to Las Vegas to see Mui perform in concert at the MGM Grand in 1994. The show was spectacular, with an ornate stage, choreographed band and dancers and the festive atmosphere of a New Year's Eve party. The Grand
Garden Arena was packed with Chinese people from all of the western states,and, when the concert began, everyone from teenagers to grandparents rushed from the cheap seats to the floor. Mui changed outfits more often than Madonna does, and I think she had a better voice, too! Most of the songs
were of the syrupy Canto-pop variety, but she delivered them with extraordinary charisma and coolness. By the end of the night, I felt asif I were her best friend -- and I barely understand Cantonese.
Mui, who announced in September that she had cervical cancer, vowed to beat the disease, even performing a series of sold-out concerts in Hong Kong shortly afterward, but she died at the age of 40 on Dec. 30.
Recording more than 40 albums and appearing in more than 40 films since starting her career at age 10, Mui never married. Her life was her work.
When she checked into the Hong Kong Sanitorium Hospital, Mui was filming Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers." Zhang has chosen to retain her role as a loose thread in the plot rather the cut her footage or replace the actress with a double.
Fans of Mui know how irreplaceable and important she was to Hong Kong's entertainment culture. Those who don't can buy or rent films such as "A Better Tomorrow III," "Rouge," "The Heroic Trio," "Drunken Master II" or "Justice, My Foot!"