Everyone who goes to see Anita will do so because of the name in its title.
When they come out of the cinema, more than a few may realise that a new star is born with this mesmerising musical biopic of one of the biggest stars to grace Hong Kong show business.
It would seem an impossible mission to evoke the unparalleled charisma of the late Canto-pop singer and actress Anita Mui Yim-fong, but Louise Wong Dan-nei, a fashion model making her acting debut, embraces the challenge and nearly nails her part.
The actress is a lock for the best newcomer prize at the 2022 Hong Kong Film Awards and has an outside chance of taking the best leading actress crown as well.
Anita chronicles Mui’s rise from child performer at assorted entertainment venues to generational superstar in both music and film, including the personal setbacks at her prime and the solemn final few months before her death in December 2003.
Its narrative is by-the-numbers but should nevertheless offer a very poignant trip through time for viewers who grew up with Mui in the 1980s and 90s.
Under the unusually assured direction of Longman Leung Lok-man, previously best known for co-directing the hugely profitable Cold War action film series, Anita makes the most of its 137-minute duration to portray Mui’s relationships with a few important figures among her family and friends.
In the supporting roles, Fish Liew Tsz-yu leaves the biggest impression as Ann Mui Oi-fong, the older sister who lives in Anita’s shadow but remains totally supportive.
Louis Koo Tin-lok shows a rare emotional side as Eddie Lau Pui-kei, Mui’s go-to image consultant, and Lam Ka-tung offers pragmatic support as So Hau-leung, Mui’s producer at her music label.
Terrance Lau Chun-him (Beyond the Dream) does well enough with the thankless task of embodying Mui’s best friend and fellow superstar Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing.
While a scene recreating Cheung’s funeral borders on the emotionally exploitative, there is so much left unsaid between the Mui and Cheung characters, you wish they’ll be given a spin-off feature all to themselves.
There are notable – and understandable – omissions.
While the film elaborates on Mui’s ultimately futile romantic relationships and highlights her charitable endeavours, it shies away from mentioning her fabled political activism in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Mui’s bloodsucking mother and brothers – a key part of her tragic backstory – are also conspicuously absent.
What we’re left with is a simultaneously uplifting and mournful portrait of a true Hong Kong icon who earned her place through a combination of sheer will power and unbridled compassion.
Anita isn’t remotely the most memorable of movie biopics, but it more than accomplishes its aim of bringing back a past that many in Hong Kong are nostalgic for, and it does so with lush detail and complete conviction.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.