From book to film

WHEN TAN Twan Eng's novel The Garden of Evening Mist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, it was a proud day for the Malaysian literary scene.

The book eventually won the MAN Asian Literary Prize, and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

So when news came out that the book was being adapted for a feature film, it naturally generated a lot of buzz.

Last week, Astro Shaw and its partners, HBO Asia and Finas (the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia), held a press conference to announce that filming has commenced for The Garden of Evening Mists in various locations in Malaysia.

This includes Cameron Highland's famed tea plantations, where a large portion of the story takes place in the book.
Helming the movie, which is scheduled to be released sometime next year, is award-winning Taiwanese filmmaker Tom Lin, who was at the press conference along with some of the film's cast.

The story revolves around Teoh Yun Ling who suffered greatly during the Japanese Occupation.

Years later, she goes to Cameron Highlands and seeks the help of Nakamura Aritomo (played by Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe), the former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, to build a garden that she and her late sister dreamed of.

Her earlier story is told via flashbacks by Yun Ling, now a retired judge in her 60s (played by Taiwanese actress-director-producer Sylvia Chang).

Playing the younger Yun Ling is Malaysian actress Lee Sinje.
Others in the cast are Scottish actor John Hannah (The Mummy trilogy), English actors David Oakes and Julian Sands, as well as Malaysian actress Serene Lim as Yun Ling's sister Yun Hong.

We spoke to Lee and Abe about their roles.

Taiwan-based Lee, whose last Malaysian film was Ice Kacang Puppy Love (2010), said: "I was looking forward to working in a Malaysian production once again. When I received the script, I was deeply moved by the character."

Asked how she approached playing the younger Yun Ling, Lee said she took some cues from the book and applied it to her acting.

"The novel itself is very in-depth and complete in describing the character from her life in the Japanese concentration camp all the way to her 60s.

"The script itself can't be as detailed as the novel but reading the novel helps you understand the character.

"I don't really worry about how [book readers] will react to my acting, as long as I have done my homework, and as long as I have understood the character well enough."

Scenes of Yun Ling's time in the concentration camp have yet to be shot, and Lee admitted that it will be tough from what she read in the script.

She said: "I remember when the director showed me the model of the camp, I was shocked. I was like: 'Are you sure I [can] sleep here, there is no room to sleep at all!'

"They know it will be tough for me, so the director arranged to shoot this part after I had shot my other scenes.

"They want me to look very skinny and very exhausted. I think I will look like that after our hectic shooting schedule!"

Abe, who has difficultly communicating in English, spoke through a translator about his problem trying to act in the film which is 90% in English.

He said: "It was hard for me, but the director told me: 'Mr Abe, please use Japanese-English'. It is not like when I was in Hollywood films where I had to speak American-English."

On how he approached his role as a man who helped Yun Lin heal after her ordeal, Abe said: "Aritomo is a gardener. A garden means peace. The peace-loving Aritomo [also suffered] due to the war.

"He let Yun Ling build her own garden so she can find peace. Out of this, love grew [between them], and thus helped Yun Lin."

While Lee had read the book, Abe instead relied on the script and the director to give him the idea on how to play the character.

He said: "[I was more] concerned about the art, like the Japanese garden. But the set was wonderful. I thank the crew for the beautiful garden. They had obviously done a lot of in-depth research to create such a beautiful garden."