The Garden Of Evening Mists has made a successful transition from novel to film. We talk to its main star Lee Sinje and director Tom Lin
ADAPTED from Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng’s award-winning novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists brings to life a poetic love story against the backdrop of war-ridden British Malaya during and after the Japanese occupation.
It tells the story of newly-retired Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling who returns to Cameron Highlands, where she had spent a few months several years earlier. A looming health problem forces her to deal with unsettled business from her youth while she is still able to remember.
Yun Ling starts writing her memoir and chooses to meet the Japanese professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, who is interested in the life and works of the artist Nakamura Aritomo, who used to be the Japanese Emperor’s gardener but moved to Peninsular Malaysia to build his own garden.
During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Yun Ling was in a Japanese civilian internment camp with her sister, Yun Hong.
Yun Hong did not make it out alive and after the war was over, Yun Ling decided to fulfil a promise made to her sister to build a Japanese garden in their home in Kuala Lumpur.
She travels to the highlands to visit a family friend, Magnus Pretorius, an expatriate South African tea farmer who knows Aritomo.
Aritomo refuses to work for Yun Ling but agrees to take her on as an apprentice, so she can later build her own garden.
Despite her resentment against the Japanese, Yun Ling agrees to work for Aritomo and later becomes his lover.
During the conversation with Tatsuji, Yun Ling learns that Aritomo was involved in a covert Japanese operation during the war to hide looted treasure from occupied territories.
Aritomo never talks about the treasure to Yun Ling, but gradually it becomes clear that he may have left a clue to its location in the form of a map he gives her.
Yun Ling decides that she must ensure that no one will be able to get their hands on the map. In the meantime, she sets out to restore Aritomo’s dilapidated garden.
The Garden Of Evening Mists which opened in cinemas yesterday is directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Tom Lin.
Award-winning Malaysian actress Lee Sinje plays the young Yun Ling while Hong Kong veteran actress Sylvia Chang plays the old Yun Ling.
The other stars of the film include Hiroshi Abe (Nakamura), British actors John Hannah, Julian Sands and David Oakes, and Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua.
Co-produced by HBO Asia and Astro Shaw, The Garden Of Evening Mists has a cinematic texture on par with Hollywood productions.
Exploring the journey of a survivor from a tragic period of Malaysian history, it focuses on the universal themes of coping with grief, finding forgiveness and realising common values.
The film garnered nine nominations at the 56th Golden Horse Awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Leading Actress for Lee, as well as Best Makeup and Costume Design last October.
It made its world premiere at the 24th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in the same month.
Below is a recent interview with Lin, Lee and Abe.
WHAT WERE THE DIFFICULTIES FACED ADAPTING THE NOVEL INTO A FILM?
Lin: It’s never an easy task adapting any novel down to a two-hour story. The Garden Of Evening Mists was especially hard because of Malaya’s complex historical background and the multiple narratives spanning long periods of time.
Screenwriter Richard Smith and I had to focus on one narrative line and simplify the others.
In the end, we decided to focus on the 1950s Yun Ling and Aritomo’s relationship, thus having to exclude a lot, which was painful.
Twan Eng was very respectful of the adaptation process and I’m happy to say that he liked the film, which was a great relief for me.
WHERE WAS FILMING DONE AND WHEN?
Lin: We went around Peninsular Malaysia to look for the right location. We built a Japanese garden and Yugiri (a Japanese house) in Temoh, Perak. We also built a Japanese labour camp in Sungai Lembing, Kuantan and shot in the mines as well.
At Cameron Highlands, we shot some scenes in the Mossy Forest.
As for Yun Ling’s cottage, it was built in a tea plantation.
We shot Magnus’ house in Carey Island, Kuala Langat. All in, filming was completed in 47 days, with production wrapping up on Aug 1, 2018.
HOW WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH THE MAIN STARS?
Lin: The film is blessed with a wonderful cast. They were professional and well-prepared for their roles. My job as the director was just to give them a safe and realistic environment for them to do their jobs.
Sinje displayed dedication and focus in every single scene. Abe even went for Japanese tea classes as he believed a professional gardener would know the art of tea.
John Hannah was so focused that he didn’t even stop acting when he hit his finger with a hammer during one scene. I was just so lucky to be working with these people.
ANYTHING MEMORABLE HAPPENED ON THE SET?
Lin: On our last day of shooting, the clouds opened up and gave us sunshine at just the right moment. That I will remember very fondly.
However, there was one night while we were shooting in the Japanese house, rain poured down so hard it almost destroyed our garden. In fact, a small bridge was washed away. The rain flooded our road out and we were trapped on set.
To make things worse, the next day we were scheduled to shoot the scene of Aritomo and Yun Ling looking at a totally finished and beautiful garden.
WHAT IS THE MAIN MESSAGE BEHIND THE STORY AND WHICH OF THE CHARACTERS DO YOU IDENTIFY WITH THE MOST?
Lin: The main message is about forgiveness and letting go.
I identify with Yun Ling the most because I’ve also struggled with letting go in my personal life as well.
WHICH WAS THE MOST INTERESTING AND BEAUTIFUL PLACE YOU VISITED IN MALAYSIA DURING FILMING?
Lin: There are so many. If I had to name one in particular, I would say the Mossy Forest in Cameron Highlands. It’s such a magical and spiritual place. There’s something about that forest that’s just so special. It feels like a place that can stop time.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING PROJECTS.
Lin: My next project will be a biography of Taiwanese rapper Shawn Sung. He grew up in Los Angeles without his parents, taught himself music, made one of the most influential Mandarin hip-hop song called Life’s A Struggle, and died when he was just 23.
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTERS.
Lee: My character Yun Ling is a very strong and determined woman. She is brave in facing the challenges of life. Love means so much to her but she has to learn to let go of such feelings.
Abe: Aritomo has an interesting personality that is wrapped in mystery.
He has a strong sense of responsibility and faith in his own country, and he does not show his emotions which is the result of some trauma from his past.
TELL US HOW YOU PREPARED FOR YOUR ROLES IN THE FILM.
Lee: This is the first time I’m acting in an English language film.Therefore I worked really hard to master the language with my English language coach.
I watched a lot of historical documentaries about World War II, comfort women and the Malayan Emergency to delve more into Yun Ling’s world. I also took a month reading the novel.
Abe: Aritomo is a gardener, so I visited gardens in order to learn the philosophical aspects and basics of Japanese traditional gardening.
Also I learnt about Japanese traditional tea ceremonies and manners. I was able to understand deeply the Japanese mentality of that time.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST DIFFICULTIES YOU FACED WHEN PLAYING YOUR CHARACTER?
Lee: I had to throw myself completely into Yun Ling. It’s very exhausting. I had to compress four years into two months.
Abe: The scene where Aritomo met Yun Ling for the first time is, for me, the most important part of the film so I paid a lot of attention to it.
DID YOU TALK TO THE AUTHOR?
Lee: I met Twan Eng a few times during Press conferences and shooting. He sent me a text after he watched the movie, saying: “Sinje, I watched the film a month ago and I was overwhelmed by your portrayal of Yun Ling. It was a sensitive, powerful and complex performance.
Thank you for bringing Yun Ling to life. No one else could have done it.” Haha! I’m extremely happy that I did justice to Yun Ling.
Abe: I didn’t get to talk to Twan Eng though we met briefly on location. I remember his warm smile and I was really happy to see him.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS FROM THIS STORY?
Lee: Accept how life is, go through it, learn, grow and let go.
Abe: Respect each other and have a common vision towards world peace. This teaches us to forgive ourselves.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW PROJECTS.
Lee: I was recently involved in a TV programme about body, soul and mind. It encourages us to know who we
are, understand the truths about life and deal with our inner world to find inner peace.
Abe: I’ll soon appear in the play Henry VIII as the title character. It is based on the life and loves of the famous British monarch.