THERE is a Chinese proverb that says: “Life begins the day you start a garden.” That can be said to be true in the case of Tan Twan Eng’s novel The Garden of Evening Mists.
This multi-layered story not only captures the horrors of war (especially for women) but features a compelling heroine trying to overcome personal demons.
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan’s second novel, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Like Tan’s 2007 debut novel, The Gift of Rain, the book helped put Malaysia on the international literary map, and news that it was being adapted for the big screen naturally made news.
The film adaptation of The Garden of Evening Mists revolves around Teoh Yun Ling (played by Lee Sinje), a Japanese prison camp survivor who has spent several years helping authorities prosecute Japanese war criminals.
She travels to Cameron Highlands to find famed Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo (Hiroshi Abe) to commission him to build a Japanese garden on her family property in Kuala Lumpur as a memorial to her sister who died at the prison camp.
Aritomo refuses, and instead offers to teach her how to build her own garden.
Though Yun Ling initially resents Aritomo, working with him helps her open up about the past and view the world differently.
The movie was directed by Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-Yu, and features an international cast that includes Malaysian-born Lee and Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang (who plays an older Yun Ling), Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe, British actors John Hannah, David Oakes and Julian Sands, Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua and Malaysian actress Serene Lim.
The Garden of Evening Mists had its world premiere at the 24th Busan Film Festival and was screened at the 16th Hong Kong Asian Film festival. It was also the closing film at the 56th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, where it won for best makeup and costume design.
Last week, a press screening of The Garden of Evening Mists was held, after which author Tan, the film’s director Lin and actresses Lee, Lim and Chang spoke to the media.
Tan (who claimed to have seen the movie five times) said: “I was overwhelmed. Cameron Highlands has never looked so beautiful onscreen before, and I credit the production team for bringing the beauty of our country to the big screen and to the rest of the world as well.”
Tan also loved how the film was beautifully composed and lit. “Every scene is like a painting, it is like a work of art. I hope every one of you feels the same way when you see the hard work that went into creating [it],” he added.
On complaints that leading man Abe does not resemble Aritomo in the book, Tan said: “Hiroshi is such a good actor. I think the story sucks you in from the very beginning, and you [eventually] accept him as the gardener, and I am quite happy [with his casting].”
Tan said he accepted from the start that the adaptation would be different from his book, but felt that the screenplay managed to condense the very complicated plot of his book into a two-hour film.
Tan explained: “[They] have intensified the focus of some of the themes, which I thought was very cleverly done through the concept of borrowed scenery. Just by talking about borrowed scenery they managed to incorporate many themes of the books as well, and made them coherent and easily understood.”
Director Lin admitted to feeling daunted when he was approached by Astro Shaw to direct this film.
The Taiwanese-born Lin said: “To be honest, prior to this project, I didn’t really know much about Malaysia and about its history. I think throughout the entire process it has been a pleasure [and] a surprise.
“When you see what is on the screen you know it was not a very easy film to make. I give all credit to my wonderful cast and crew. I can keep on watching this again and again because they were so great.”
Lim, who plays Yun Ling’s tragic sister Yun Hong in flashback scenes, said: “I feel really honoured. This is my second film. This is a big production and I got to act with [Lee] Sinje, and I am so happy.
“The role was really challenging and I [have] never played a role like that. I got to learn a lot about Japanese gardens and the history of Malaysia.”
The scenes featuring the sisters’ days in the Japanese camp were the last to be filmed, and were shot over five days in Sungai Lembing. Lee said that wearing heavy makeup and a wig in the tropical heat made the proceedings more difficult.
Lin said that prior to the shoot it had rained for ten days straight, but the weather cleared during filming.
“On the day we actually got there and started shooting, for the entire five days and nights there was not a single raindrop,” Lin said. “We were so lucky. It wasn’t until the last day of shooting [that] it started raining.
“I don’t know if they secretly hired a bomoh and didn’t tell me about it, but it was miraculous that we managed to finish all those things in five days.”
Lee said she appreciates the fact that she was considered for the role “despite being in my 40s”, and not having done films for three to four years after becoming a mother to twins.
Lee, who spent a month reading the novel before taking on the role, said: “I feel very proud to be involved in this very good project, [with] a very powerful story. I am happy to have this happen in my home country, Malaysia. I was always looking for more opportunities to come back to Malaysia.
“This is such a good story. I hope all Malaysians will support the movie.”
Lee added that people have commented that she is very much like Yun Ling. “We are both strong woman who have strong survival skills. We also take love seriously in any kind of relationship. Once we love someone we are devoted to them. When I read the script I could understand Yun Ling so deeply.”
Meanwhile, Taiwanese actress Chang expressed her satisfaction with the movie. “I loved this movie. I just wish I was 30 years younger and could play her part!” she joked, pointing at Lee.
“For me I consider films as just ‘films’, not ‘Taiwanese films’ or ‘Malaysian films’. [Film] is international, it is an international language that brings everyone together,” Chang added.
The Garden of Evening Mists opens in cinemas nationwide on Thursday.