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9 best Anita Mui films you should watch

By Min Ji Park 24 May 2022

Header image: Still from Rouge (1988)

Few people are better suited for the title of “Hong Kong superstar” than Anita Mui Yim-fong. As the “Madonna of the East,” Mui first broke into the Cantopop music scene in 1982. A year later, she would act in her first film, The Sensational Pair, and go on to star in everything from action to comedy to romance, often as the leading lady to other Hong Kong stars such as Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau. Her music and acting career would concurrently continue to flourish for 21 years until her premature death from cervical cancer at age 40 in 2003, with over 30 albums and over 40 films to her name.

Whether you begin chronologically, from her most famous roles, or from underrated gems, there’s no bad way to familiarise yourself with Mui’s filmography. Just to help you out, we’ve made our own non-definitive list of some of Anita Mui’s best films.

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Rouge (1988)

Rouge tells the story of a couple, Yuen and Chor, who are drawn into a quest to help the ghost of a courtesan—Fleur (Anita Mui)—as she seeks her long-lost love Chan Chen-pang (Leslie Cheung). As the search for Chan begins, Fleur discovers that the Hong Kong she once knew is very different, and finding Chan may be more complicated than she thought.

As one of her most iconic roles, this is ultimately Mui’s film—she commands the screen as the tragic and endearing heroine. Mui and Cheung’s chemistry is as sizzling as ever, lending believability to the characters; a true showcase of Hong Kong’s top stars of the time, with a timeless love story made all the more poignant when recalling their premature passing.

Kawashima Yoshiko (1990)

A star vehicle for Anita Mui, Kawashima Yoshiko features another one of her most iconic roles as the Qing-dynasty-princess-turned-spy, Yoshiko Kawashima. Based on a true story, Mui shows her strengths as a dramatic actress as she moves through the film convincingly.

As a spy, Yoshiko Kawashima is meant to one day revive the Manchu nation. She is content to make many sacrifices for her cause until the reappearance of her former lover (Andy Lau)—an anti-Japanese revolutionary—awakens a personal crisis within her.

Justice, My Foot (1992)

In Justice, My Foot, Mui flexes her funny bone in a role that threatens to steal the show from Hong Kong’s very own “King of Comedy,” Stephen Chow. In a role that showcases both her comedy and action skills, Mui holds her own to give an enduring performance that elevates the “wife” role beyond playing second fiddle to the leading man.

Director Johnnie To helms this tale of a devious lawyer (Chow) who wins his cases by any means necessary—much to the chagrin of his kung fu champion wife (Mui) who believes she keeps losing her children due to her husband’s unsavoury tactics. Just as Sung agrees to retire to the countryside, a suspicious death brings him back to court to get justice.

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Saviour of the Soul (1991)

Saviour of the Soul centres itself on the relationships between three mercenaries, Ching (Andy Lau), Mei-kwan (Mui), and Siu-chen (Kenny Bee). Just as things come to a head, the three of them find themselves facing off against the fearsome Silver Fox (Aaron Kwok).

Starring opposite Lau once again, Mui pulls double duty as Mei-kwan and Mei-wai, twin sisters who could not be more different. As both the leading lady and the comic relief, she successfully plays two distinct characters who feel like true individuals. Mui proves that she can pull off almost any role by literally portraying multiple in this action-packed film.

Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man (1996)

In this sequel to He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen reprise their roles as Sam and Lam Chi-wing, respectively. As the two begin a relationship after falling in love in the first film, they find themselves in difficult situations due to Lam still posing as a male pop star. To make matters more complicated, Cantopop’s biggest superstar (Mui) returns to the industry to confuse and shake things up further for the couple.

Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man does well in maintaining its comedic roots while forging ahead with questions on gender norms and sexual orientation. As a new character, Mui settles in quickly and delivers a memorable performance. In fact, the film boasts great acting from the whole cast, who organically play off each other with palpable chemistry.

Eighteen Springs (1997)

Ann Hui directs Mui to an award-winning supporting turn in Eighteen Springs as the complicated character of Manlu. She is everything from infuriating to heartbreaking in a role that is not afraid at times to be wholly unlikable. Mui gives her all while showing the right amount of restraint as a character that shines through her masterful performance.

Set in Shanghai, Manzhen (Jacklyn Wu) and Shijun (Leon Lai) are deeply in love but get pulled apart by outside forces. Meanwhile, Manzhen’s relationship with her sister, Manlu (Mui), is also put to the test as circumstances lead to gut-wrenching decisions.

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The Heroic Trio (1993)

Reuniting with legendary director Johnnie To, Mui stars in this adventure-filled film centered around three women who become entangled in facing off against the supernatural Evil Master. Mui plays Wonder Woman, a housewife by day and sword-fighting vigilante by night. Maggie Cheung is Thief Catcher, a gun-toting mercenary, while Michelle Yeoh rounds out the trio as Invisible Woman, a mysterious woman with an invisible robe.

One of Mui’s quintessential action films, The Heroic Trio explores the genre from the female protagonists’ point of view with aplomb. Mui, Cheung, and Yeoh inhabit their characters believably and play off each other well. The three women execute the film’s martial arts sequences spectacularly and bring heart to the story’s more fantastical elements.

Wu Yen (2001)

Mui’s performance in Wu Yen is iconic not just for the fact that she plays the gender-bending role of the emperor, but in that she gives one of her greatest on-screen comedic performances of her life. She channels pure “leading man” energy throughout the film with a delightfully ridiculous role that plays into the more campy elements of the plot.

Just as the inept, skirt-chasing emperor (Mui) meets the warrior (Sammi Cheng) he is destined to marry, he finds himself caught in the spell of an evil enchantress (Cecilia Cheung). The warrior is then left to try and garner the emperor’s affections while cursed by the enchantress with a mark on her face.

July Rhapsody (2002)

July Rhapsody deals with schoolteacher Lam Yiu-kwok (Jacky Cheung), as he undergoes a mid-life crisis and becomes tempted by a flirtatious student (Karena Lam). Just as this is happening, Lam’s wife (Mui) is visited by an old lover (Tou Chung-hua), who himself was her schoolteacher with whom she had an affair in her youth.

In Mui’s final film appearance before her untimely death, she gives a layered performance as a woman who must deal with complicated relationships from both her past and present. Award-winning director Ann Hui does not shy away from controversial topics as she explores them frankly and sensitively. Mui and the rest of the cast take a stellar script and elevate it enough to give these taboo subject matters relatability.

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Min Ji Park

Writer

Born in Korea and raised in Hong Kong, Min Ji spends most of her time wishing it were a little bit colder. A fan of low-key yet meaningful experiences, she can be found watching movies with her dog, taking photographs, and listening to any and all kinds of music.

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