Canto-pop diva and actress Anita Mui Yim-fong was known as the Asian Madonna and described as a "sour beauty". In light of her premature death at 40 from cervical cancer, memories of Mui are invariably tinged with tragedy and sadness. Many film fans are likely to think first of her role as a broken-hearted ghost in Stanley Kwan Kam-pang's romantic drama, Rouge (1988).
But in movies such as The Greatest Lover (1988, in which she played an etiquette and grooming expert charged with turning Chow Yun-fat's character into a playboy) and Drunken Master II (1994, in which she comically portrayed the stepmother of Jackie Chan's character) Mui showed she was a dab hand at comedy.
Director-producer Johnnie To Kei-fung had already made use of Mui's comic talent, including in two collaborations with her and ace comedian Stephen Chow Sing-chi in Justice, My Foot! (1992) and The Mad Monk (1993).
Lunar New Year comedy Wu Yen (2001), a production of To's Milkyway Image company, was the last of six movies on which To and Mui worked together. Milkyway's 17th production starred three actresses: Mui, the company's favourite female lead, Sammi Cheng Sau-man, and Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi, who had shot to fame co-starring opposite Stephen Chow in King of Comedy (1999).
To Cheng went the title role of Wu Yen, a disfigured bandit leader who is Emperor Qi's predestined wife - the prophesied "ugly girl" who will "rise to the occasion and save the country" whenever her imperial beloved's stupid actions cause it to come under attack or face an internal rebellion.
Cheung, meanwhile, was given what amounted to three roles in one since her Fairy Enchantress character takes the form of a young man and two young women.
But Mui steals the show in this hit (which earned about HK$27 million at the local box office alone), with a cross-dressing performance that had her portraying Emperor Qi and his male Ancestor Huan. The scenes where the emperor cross-dresses as a female - thereby involving an actress playing a man playing a woman - have to be seen to be believed, and had viewers laughing with delight and gasping at the sheer creative nerve of it all.
Wu Yen , today, 7pm, HK Film Archive. Part of the Male Impersonation in Hong Kong Cinema programme