Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, April 16

Gapers Block

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One of the kind congruencies this world affords us is celebrity for people who deserve it. It's true the celebrity can be manufactured (for every Bacall there is a Hilary Duff) and it seems that these days there's a dearth of the genuine article. But when you see the real thing, you know it. There are some people so much larger than life that the only circumstance large to fit their precocious personality is the silver screen. The world lost one such personality on December 30 2003, when Mui Yim Fong -- Anita Mui -- died of cancer at the age of 40.

Who was Anita Mui? The question ought to be: who wasn't she? Although death took her tragically early, Anita Mui left two decades of work that crossed genres. American audiences know her mostly as an actress in martial arts movies, including playing the foil to former-boyfriend Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx and, more importantly, as Ms. Wong in Drunken Master II. Aficionados of "action" film will also remember her roles in A Better Tomorrow III and Heroic Trio I and II. But while her kung-fu chops were passable, Anita Mui is best remembered by her Chinese audience as an actress and singer.

Although she had grown up singing (some clock her first professional performance at the tender age of five), her big break came at the age of 18 when she won a singing contest. As she rose to the top of the charts in Hong Kong, her lyrics about love and loss became as controversial as they were popular. Her music was frank to the point of indiscretion, and the scrawny tough-girl earned her the sobriquet of the "Asian Madonna" when her song "Bad" was banned in Hong Kong. Shortly afterwards, when she began acting, she demonstrated her softer side as she played a series of emotionally powerful roles. In Rouge, her film, we see the bad-girl singer transformed into a delicate, melancholy ghost wandering the streets of Hong Kong. Searching for an unrequited love, she wonders the hyper-modern streets of Hong Kong searching for the house where she will meet her love, but finding only fast-food restaurants and Marlboro billboards. None of this meant that she was above the fray, however -- she could play comedic roles with just that touch of the screwball that is so distinctively Chinese. As Ms. Wong, the mischievous side-kick stepmother to Cantonese hero Wong Fei-Hung, she steals the show straight out from under Jacky Chan.

Why was Anita Mui so successful? She was a brave, strong, woman who was not afraid to say what she thought. Although not beautiful in a classic sense, she radiated a charisma that was palpable. In shirking conventional mores, she expressed clearly issues of sexuality and love that moved people, regardless of whether propriety allowed them to explicitly mention this or not. But this frankness extended beyond matters of the heart. As the handover of Hong Kong to China approached, more than one star made movies demonstrating their potential sympathy to the regime -- the worst example of which is Jet Li's Body Guard from Beijing, which ends with his smiling face superimposed on an enormous Chinese flag. Anita never made any secrets of her own preferences -- supporting the pro-Democracy movement in China with the same straightforward integrity that informed her music.

And yet she did not only play strong women. Her performances on screen and stage were filled with an unabashed sentimentality and a willingness to feel and be emotionally vulnerable on screen and stage. While Bollywood is notorious in America for its over-the-top emotionality, Chinese cinema also has an ability to stray into the richly sentimental that many Americans find off-putting. Indeed, the strength of movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes from their ability to package that sentimentality in a way that Western audiences can relate to. In much of her stage work, Anita Mui tapped into this sentimentality of this tradition, but without producing the cloying melodrama that some Western audiences find hard to swallow. In all of this work, she radiated the sort of emotion that was immediately recognizable and undoubtedly authentic. You couldn't help but empathize.

Anita Mui deserves to be remembered not just for her tragically short career. She deserves to be remembered because she demonstrated to us how a real person can entrance thousands without computer graphics, special lighting, or six hours of makeup. When she passed away, Hong Kong lost one of its greatest stars, and the world lost one of the greatest proofs of the enduring power of true charisma, rather than a culture industry, to create its own celebrity. Anita Mui exercised such a fascination on our imagination because she was just like us. Sad the way we are sad, happy the way we are happy, she presented us with our own soul on stage. One of the kind congruencies of this world is the outlet by which larger-than-life people find their way into circumstances huge enough to fit their precocious personalities, and it took a screen thirty feet high to hold Anita Mui's heart.

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