#legendchats: Model Louise Wong on playing music legend in Anita Mui biopic

In one of Hong Kong’s more ambitious film projects to date, model Louise Wong is making her acting debut in the Longman Leung Lok Man-directed biopic Anita. She speaks to #legend about how she overcame her fears of embodying one of Cantopop’s greatest legends and how she found a sense of familiarity with her role in the process

When Louise Wong was told that she had been chosen to play Anita Mui in the Anita biopic, which hits cinemas November 12, she flew to Thailand and cried for two days. “I was terrified,” Wong recalls. “I cried for two whole days because back then, at that moment, I didn’t know what to do. This was a huge deal. Anita is legendary. How would I do it without people firing judgment my way or finding my interpretation affectatious?”

Her knee-jerk response to fly to Thailand was a curious coincidence because – as is depicted in the Longman Leung Lok Man-directed film – the late Hong Kong songstress Mui had also once sought refuge in the country after an encounter with a Triad.

“After those two days of crying, though, I knew I had to do this because this opportunity was something I felt I couldn’t give up. Once the fear passed, I was determined to do my best because I’m somebody who believes in fate and I felt that fate led me to the auditions and fate led me through each round of casting to this point” Wong says.

“When they reached out to me over social media to suggest that I go cast, I thought I was just going to try it out for fun. But when I made it to the final round of auditions and sang, some of the staff left the room and cried because they thought we were so similar – so I think this whole thing has been magical and surreal, and I can’t help but think it was a bit of a cosmic plan.”

Much has been made of the search by Edko Films for the right face to play Hong Kong’s most celebrated female singer, which took three years before producer Bill Kong, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, and his team found Wong.

The facial likeness between Wong and Mui is arresting, and at certain angles throughout the film it’s difficult to tell which clips are reels and which are acted. The likeness has helped even Wong herself, a long-time model in Hong Kong and the youngest winner of the Elite Model Look Asia Pacific at just age 16 in 2006, get into character for her first venture in acting.

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“Everyone would greet me in the morning on set as Anita Mui – ‘Good morning Mui,'” – to help me get into character. I think they worked quite hard to help me, especially on the first day, because I’m new to this but after make-up and getting dressed, I’m focused,” Wong says. “I’ve asked a lot of actor friends to understand how they approach a scene. They’d tell me that they think a lot about their actions at each moment but I’ve realised that I’m not like that.

“Once I believe in the character, everything will come to me naturally and I won’t think about anything else except what’s happening in the scene. I won’t think about the dialogue or how to act out an expression or gaze because I’ll be consumed by the reality of it. I find that that way the audience might find my acting more natural if I remain genuine.

“I think that modelling helped me a lot in this aspect – for instance, when I model I try to get a sense of what the theme of the shoot is from how I’m dressed and if, say, it’s to be ‘cool’ then I have to perform ‘cool’. You sort of forget the fear when you’re in front of the camera and just embody the sense of cool that you’re meant to. So I think in that montage where Mui sings different songs like ‘Bad Girl’ or ‘Dream Partner’, they give off different feels and I’d do my best to study, digest and embody the traits that would best communicate that song and style.”

Wong is chatting with me in a hotel suite having just finished cutting the ribbon for one of the movie’s opening ceremonies. It’s a heritage building by the harbourfront on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Fresh off a spate of publicity and private showings of the movie to industry folk and about to embark on a month-long publicity tour in the mainland, Wong seems to have taken it all in stride.

After she decided to take on the project, she committed to it with as much vigour as she professes to have exercised since she began her first part-time job aged 12. It’s a quality that she found to have shared with the legend that she had to get to know in a short six months.

Having been raised in a single-parent home, Wong and her brother grew up with their mother and grandmother. She had to spend one year in boarding school because nobody in the family at the time was able to take care of her, but credits the life experience for the way she was able to relate to Mui.

“I found that we were similar in many aspects, especially in terms of life experience. Obviously, I didn’t start working at four years old but I also started working pretty early to look after my family. I started earning money to support my family when I was 16 and my first part-time job at 12 was putting leaflets through doors. I did that discreetly but I was always thinking of ways to help relieve my family’s financial burden,” Wong recalls.

“When we were young, my brother and I only had each other so this was a lot like Mui and her sister Anne’s relationship and we all had to think of ways to support the family. My grandma was a nurse and my granddad a military doctor and they were really kind people. My grandma took care of me when I was young and taught me to be kind and loving so I’m grateful to her for giving me the strength that I have now. She taught me not to be afraid when I had to go off to boarding school on my own for a year and to believe in myself. It helped me become who I am today and without her playing similar kinds of music to the traditional Cantonese opera that I was asked to perform at my first audition for Anita, while she was cooking when I was young, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through to the second round [of auditions].”

For those who might not know, Mui began singing with her sister Anne Mui at fairgrounds as a dual act from the age of four, performing to support their mother and brood of four children. Brought up by performers around her, one particularly poignant scene in the movie is when a young Anita watches Adam Cheng, played by Carlos Chan, sing in Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese. While the late singer dropped out of school in eighth grade, she could sing in various languages, which later helped to propel her along her path to stardom.

As Wong begins to take on the role of adult Mui, she acts out not only Mui’s incredible trajectory in the entertainment industry, her daring and her passion for her work but also aspects of Mui’s love life. While to most these private facets of her character – her loneliness and her all-in striving – might sound a challenging combination, it’s in these aspects that Wong managed to find fast familiarity.

“In all honesty, I think my generation missed Anita Mui at the height of her fame. My impression of her when I was young was that she was someone whose films and TV shows my mother watched and whose songs my mother would play. I wasn’t a big fan of her because we were of different generations,” she says.

“I think what I remember most about her was when I was in eighth grade and Mui organised the 1:99 concert to raise funds to help the community and SARS medical staff and patients’ families. So I had an impression of her that she was a heroine for the city and someone who cared, but it was only after this movie that I realised she was a strong woman, resilient when it came to her career, but also someone constantly looking for love,” Wong says.

“Like Mui, being a model is something I love doing and I’ve given it all and done my best, missing family gatherings and holidays for work because I think it’s my strength and stay. Like Mui, the stage was her strength and stay and so I found that her willingness to give it her all and my willingness to give my work my all was something I could relate to. It’s also because of this that I’ve experienced a lot of turbulence in love, like Mui,” she continues.

“There have been boys who were afraid of me because of how hard I worked for my career, or they had just graduated from school but I’d already been working for years and the difference intimidated them. So I’ve been able to, quite easily, put a lot of these life experiences, how they’ve shaped me and those feelings, into the way I entered the character. It’s also these similarities that have led me to think this opportunity was fate.”

While the similarities abound, Wong’s performance of Mui doesn’t intend to mimic the actress. “It’s never been about copying her 100% because we’re different human beings at the end of the day. So it’s not possible to be exactly the same but I worked hard with my acting, singing and dancing coaches to capture her expressions and emotions, and tried my best to put my own feeling into it,” Wong says.

After all, it’s hard to be a legend. Having had to work to embody one, Wong probably knows this better than most. “It’s their experience, their life, their impact and contributions to society, to the people they deem important, their effort to be the best in their area of expertise and in many cases leaving us so early – it’s a combination of all of these reasons as well as the generation that they’re in that all have to come together for a legend to be made,” she observes. “I think it’s really hard to be a legend in this generation. In Mui’s generation, though, legends were made, which sets a good example for later generations like us.”

And while of course, Wong admits to aspiring to one day achieving something even close to the legendary status of Anita Mui, known so affectionately as the “Daughter of Hong Kong”, and “Madonna of the East”, the actress and model says, “I want to be sincere. On set, I was somehow magically able to perform such that the staff cried. They said it was as if my performance had opened a Pandora’s box where they could connect to some of the emotions and love they had for Mui. I think perhaps it’s because I have always been a very sincere person – with you in this interview, and with this performance. I’m a bit embarrassed to be saying this out loud, but I hope audiences can see that I’m sincere.” 

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