Wardrobe Department: Anita Mui


Wardrobe Department: Anita Mui

Wardrobe Dept. is a regular Metrograph column in which writers take a front row look at fashion in film, paying close attention to iconic and outlandish costumes, star players, and those pulling strings behind the scenes. For the latest entry, Phoebe Chen remembers the exhilaratingly chameleonic Cantopop style icon Anita Mui.

Cantopop Icons is currently playing at 7 Ludlow.

anita mui headshot

Anita Mui, 1990

She was another kind of unearthly before her spectral turn in Rouge (1987), before she became the apparition with the dulcet voice: Anita Mui—Sister Mui, Mui Jie—was already celestial when Stanley Kwan cast her in Rouge, a new-gen Cantopop diva gone multi-platinum, soon to have 10M album sales to her name. Mui’s Fleur is a ghost from 1934, trawling the nocturnal fluorescence of contemporary Hong Kong in search of her lost lover. It’s tricky enough casting a beloved voice in any role, never mind a singing one; the familiar fictions of their stardom always threaten to steal the character’s limelight. But Rouge staged a new lie, debuting an archetype that Mui would reprise endlessly into the next decade: a weary-eyed showgirl or courtesan of the 1930s or ’40s, always buttoned into floral cheongsam, her bobbed hair in rolling waves. And yet, this is not the Mui who sings in Rouge. The first and only time Kwan centers her legendary contralto, she appears in a simple men’s changshan—winkingly in drag opposite Leslie Cheung—hair pulled back and tucked into a small black cap while she sings the male part in a Cantonese opera, one gender performance nested in another.

Reinvention is now de rigueur for any pop star’s battle against overexposure, but Mui was one of the first in Hong Kong to commit so thoroughly to a protean visuality, her stage personas testing the permissible articulations of gender and sexuality for popular performers in East Asia. Her ascent in the ’80s not only revised the trope of the Cantopop songstress, tender in the saccharine haze of her lovelorn days; it also reflected that decade’s changing structures of media production. Talents like Mui and Cheung, dear friends and frequent co-stars, crested to professional zeniths in several mediums, accruing prestige and accolades for their musical as well as cinematic performances. Film crossovers were nothing new for celebrated singers in Hong Kong—Cantonese opera actors had been lured onscreen as early as the ’30s—but the rise of MTV and stadium tours multiplied the avenues of a performer’s visibility and extended their modes of expression.

anita mui 1

Rouge (1987)

If Kwan was the artist who best understood Mui’s mutable image—he was, after all, literate enough in stardom and its metatexts to soon make Center Stage (1991), whose real-life, silent film starlet lead, Ruan Lingyu, was initially written for Mui—fashion designer and couturier Eddie Lau was the one who teased out the full gamut of her style. After an 18-year-old Mui won the inaugural New Talent Singing Contest in 1982, record label Capital Artists (a subsidiary of broadcasting behemoth TVB) assigned Lau the role of Mui’s official image designer: a hybridized stylist, personal dressmaker, and creative consultant of the show that was to be Anita Mui.

Even before their debut collaboration at the 1983 Tokyo Music Festival, Lau boasted his own roster of firsts: he was the first Hong Kong designer to show at London Fashion Week, and the first to open name-branded boutiques in overseas markets. Yet it was Lau’s work with stars like Mui and Cheung that reified his legacy as a dexterous conjurer, not only of indelible costumes but of entire visual ecosystems. He knew how to refract the most colorful shards of Mui’s scandal-smudged life into kaleidoscopic personas, and he was preternaturally adroit at finding the right look and mood for an album’s static iconography as well as fantasy processions onstage. In the final decade of Mui’s career, as she became surer of the self she wanted on display, their partnership did waver a little—she shirked Lau’s creative counsel for her 1991-’92 Farewell Concert, when she briefly retired from the pop world for a few years, and she was costumed entirely by Dior haute couture for her 2002 Fantasy Gig. But in act one, Lau was her Pygmalion, sculpting transformations while the pouty neophyte with the heart-shaped face braved her spotlight’s new magnitude.

Kawashima Yoshiko

Kawashima Yoshiko (1990)

It was Lau who, in 1984, launched Mui with a brand-making hairstyle, razing her long, ingénue curls into the shag cut that helped entrench the image of her androgyny. For the cover of her 1985 album The Years Flow Like Water, Lau drew inspiration from Marlene Dietrich’s trousered gusto, updating her sleek, ’30s tuxedo by putting Mui in a gray wool suit and a pair of blocky Wayfarers, her cropped hair slicked back in the more au courant evocation of a Wall Street powerbroker instead of Morocco’s (1930) smoking gentleman. This guise of besuited masculinity often made incursions onscreen, as seen in the sly prelude to Rouge, and would become the entire narrative crux in films like Kawashima Yoshiko (1990), with Mui as a Manchu princess gone undercover in the Japanese Army, and in Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man? (1996) as herself, more or less, tellingly in drag opposite Cheung (again!).

In 1986, Lau fashioned a drastically different cover image for Mui’s best-selling fifth album, Bad Girl, a pivot into seamy femininity that would become another of Mui’s core personas. In the Bad Girl cover photo, she appears swathed in shadowy drama and a lustrous purple robe, a hefty band of diamonds clasping her neck. Now this is the look of a diva: her chin at an imperious tilt, broadcasting opulence, and intimating corruption of spiritual and material kinds.


Bad Girl (1986)

The persistence of Mui’s Bad Girl incarnation was, in part, stoked by classist chatter that maligned her working childhood. Mui had been performing with her sister Ann since she was four, and had dropped out of high school to work as a nightclub and lounge singer. No surprise that the public flocked to the story of her origins, so pat it was almost literary—one of Mui’s last films, Ann Hui’s Eighteen Springs (1997), was based on an Eileen Chang novel, though it may as well have been sourced from Mui’s childhood: two sisters are orphaned with nothing but their beauty; the older one shoulders their survival by becoming—surprise—a showgirl.

What’s often lost in the parade of Mui’s stage personas is her capacity for comedy, a willingness to look foolish—or just plain bad—that speaks to a performer at ease with the reach of their image. There is the flurry of Johnnie To and Shaw Brothers action comedies she took on through the ’90s, though I have a particular soft spot for one of her earliest roles as the brash, infatuated goof in Behind the Yellow Line (1984). Mui is the film’s tragically dressed comic relief in lemon-yellow plaid and a mullet permed at the crown, and I love her for it—this fledgling actor with enough insouciance to play a four-eyed chump, opposite a radiant Maggie Cheung, no less.

behind the yellow line

Behind the Yellow Line (1984)

But there was a discomfiting incongruity amidst Mui’s many contradictions: the heteronormative yearning that tugged at her entire life, an undertow of unmet desires for marriage and motherhood beneath her outré surface. “Deep inside I’m a very traditional woman,” Mui declared in 2003, a sentiment transformed by Lau into the opening and closing looks for her farewell concert that year (the real one, just weeks before her death from cervical cancer at age 40): two bridal gowns for the wedding she would never have. Both gowns are, like many of Lau’s stage costumes, on permanent display at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, their cachet literally enshrined. But of all the clothes that Mui wore onstage and onscreen, the wardrobe I revisit the most belongs to the cosmopolitan Wonder Woman of The Heroic Trio (1993). Mui’s civilian ensembles are beguiling enough, all sheer, muted plums and viridian green trench coats, her hair in bombshell mode—big, brushed-out curls à la Lauren Bacall’s Nora Temple in Key Largo (1948), neat but buoyant in motion.

Most striking is Mui’s vigilante costume, easy to overlook adjacent Michelle Yeoh’s bombastic scarlet get-ups and Maggie Cheung’s dystopian biker gear. Mui’s Wonder Woman disguise is a mix of comic book Americana’s functional, limb-hugging leather and a billowing wuxia robe—deep purple like the cover of Bad Girl—its floor-length sleeves a reminder that any master of choreographed movement has first conquered earthly physics. Her mask is neither flimsy, spandex camp nor the matte black, high-tech seriousness of recent superhero reboots, just a plain, silver shroud that flirts with the light. But it seems to register and not conceal, the shifting imprints of her expressions, its metallic surface hewing to every contour of her face, as if cast in molten steel that never quite set. Like so many stars who have cleaved their private selves from the public phantasmagoria of their likeness, Mui often spoke of a desire to “take off the mask,” though I suspect she knew, as do all who love her, that something true enough still came through.

Phoebe Chen is a writer and PhD candidate living in New York. Her work has been published in Artforum, The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere.

anita mui heroic trio

The Heroic Trio (1993)