The divas are dead. Two of Hong Kong’s most theatrical, most popular, most outrageously sexual stars won’t be around to ring in the Chinese New Year. Leslie Cheung, the only openly gay Chinese celebrity, killed himself on April 1. Then Anita Mui, dubbed “the Madonna of Asia,” died of cervical cancer on December 30. She was 40 years old.
From her award-winning performance in 1987’s elegiac Rouge through her November 2003 concerts in Hong Kong, Anita Mui was the irreplaceable queen of Chinese pop. Most Hong Kong actors have singing careers, but Mui was legendary. Playing sold-out concerts around the world, she was responsible for the biggest-selling Cantopop album of all time and received so many music awards that in 1990 she stopped accepting them. Two men died for her, victims of an escalating series of gangland reprisals over an insult flung at Mui in a nightclub in 1992.
On-screen, she had a sleepy beauty and ace comic timing. Punitively cast as Jackie Chan’s stepmom in Drunken Master II (Chan is nine years Mui’s elder), she blithely skipped away with the movie. But she also radiated crushing isolation and world-weariness. Western fans know her best for two tortured action performances: as Wonder Woman in The Heroic Trio, and as a wracked-with-regret hit woman in the Vietnam epic A Better Tomorrow III.
Mui was diagnosed with cancer two years ago but refused treatment until it was too late. She made her diagnosis public in September, saying, “I will win this battle. I won’t disappoint my friends.” A lifelong fighter who earned her place atop one of the world’s most carnivorous celebrity cultures, Mui hasn’t disappointed anyone. Hong Kong’s warrior princess will take a final bow with the 2004 release of Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic House of Flying Daggers. It’s the last movie in the unforgettable, too short career of a woman known all over Asia as “Big Sister.”