Feature

2019 Golden Horse Awards

Tom Lin Searches for History and Humanity at 'The Garden of Evening Mists'

2019/11/19 , Interview
Underground Film
Photo Credit: Toh Jin Xuan / The News Lens
Underground Film
I still believe movies are shot at 24 frames per second, and I'm willing to live in this romantic lie while using my words to give more people a bit of joy between lies and reality. 

Last year, Taiwanese director Fu Yue’s (傅榆) documentary Our Youth in Taiwan won the 55th Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary. In her acceptance speech, Fu said, “I hope that one day, our country can be treated as an independent entity.” Her comment, along with many political factors, has led to China’s boycotting of the 2019 Golden Horse Awards.

The absence of Chinese films, however, highlighted the vibrancy of Southeast Asian films, granting even more possibilities for the development of Sinophone cinema.

To recount Malaysian-born filmmakers who earned their reputation in Taiwan, we can think of directors like Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), Lau kek-huat (廖克發), and Tan Seng Kiat (陳勝吉). Their works have incorporated Malaysian and Taiwanese elements, breaking boundaries and creating something unique in itself.

But among the Golden Horse contestants this year, a Taiwanese director did something out of the norm — he filmed a Malaysian story in Malaysia instead. We’re talking about writer-director Tom Lin Shu-yu (林書宇) and his latest film The Garden of Evening Mists.

The Garden of Evening Mists is adapted from an English-language novel of the same title by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng. The original novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. For the screen adaptation, an international cast including Li Sinje (李心潔), Hiroshi Abe (阿部寬), Sylvia Chang (張艾嘉), Julian Sands, and David Oakes was starred in the film. Behind the scene were Scottish screenwriter Richard Smith, Indian cinematographer Kartik Vijay, as well as a team of Australian and Taiwanese production designers.

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Photo Credit: Toh Jin Xuan / The News Lens
Tom Lin Shu-yu talks about the lessons and challenges in filming "The Garden of Evening Mists."

With talents from around the world, The Garden of Evening Mists has received nine Golden Horse nominations. It's also the first time Lin is competing for the Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards.

In the past 11 years, Lin has accumulated his filmmaking experience from Winds of September (2008), a teenage drama film; to Zinnia Flowers (2015), a story about recovering from the grief of losing his loved one. A moving quote from Zinnia Flowers, "There's a time for flowers to bloom, and a time for them to wither," still resonates with many of his fans who have found refuge in the film.

After years of experience, Lin switched his attention to a poetic love story set in Malaysia after the Second World War. He was chosen to film The Garden by the largest Malaysia-based producer Astro Shaw and HBO Asia. Through the art of gardening and tattoo, he embarked on a cinematic journey with the two main characters, Yun Ling (played by Li Sinje and Sylvia Chang) and Nakamura Aritomo (played by Hiroshi Abe).

Does the production scale make a difference in Lin Shu-yu's work?

From Lin's previous works, he has dealt with various budgets and crews. But this was the first time Lin collaborated with a foreign producer, with a budget of around NT$130 million and a script fewer than 120 pages. At a pace of one-minute screen time per each page of the screenplay, along with a 90-person film crew, The Garden is considered a large-scale production for Taiwanese cinema. But for Lin, budget differences do not really matter because there's never enough money. Even if it's a big production, he would have to make all kinds of compromise.

"The original screenplay had mentioned a train station. We found the station, but couldn't find a train from that era. Then we had to think about if we were going to use CGI or transport the train from somewhere," Lin told The News Lens. "Plus, the garden in the novel is massive, like Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, but we didn't have enough money to build one and there wasn't enough space in the Cameron Highlands either."

The only difference in having a bigger film crew was mobility, Lin added.

Communication is a challenge in any large-scale production. With a film crew of almost a hundred people, there's a lack of flexibility and it demands a comprehensive plan and scheduled dates. Lin noted that more often than not, creativity flows better when there's a budget restraint. A lot of the film movements had originated from a country's economic and political crisis, such as the French New Wave and the New Taiwanese Cinema, which explored possibilities within restrictions.

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Photo Credit: Applause Entertainment
Film still from "The Garden of Evening Mists"

According to Lin, there are pros and cons both in the lack of funding and the abundance of it, but the important lesson lies in maintaining creativity and reaching compromises when a large investment is involved. He has proved himself capable of producing works with different levels of resources.

However, the workflow with a foreign crew proved to be quite different from what Lin was used to in Taiwan. Astro Shaw appointed production services company Biscuit Films, which had helped with the filming of Crazy Rich Asians in Malaysia, to manage the on-set production. Biscuit Films adopted the workstyle from the West, where the crew is valued over the film itself. The staff also closely monitored work hours and required filming to be limited to only 12 hours a day. If there's a need for overtime, it has to be permitted by every department leader in addition to overtime pay. For this reason, Lin had to strategize his daily itinerary and think about how to film "precisely."

"I was always a bit worried when I yelled 'okay' on set, because I thought I had missed a lot of shots. But in post-production, I realized we had already captured a ton of materials and had to cut off many scenes instead," Lin said. "I reflected on it afterward and realized I only wanted to film those unnecessary scenes for my own comfort. Could I have been more precise? It's not impossible."

In Taiwan, the film industry often falls for the "Auteur Theory," in which the entire film is to "serve the director." In contrast to Taiwan's filmmaking culture, foreign crews have less of a hierarchy. Because of the 12-hour limitation, the crew also has room to breathe — the idea of "being forced to rest" becomes a defense line between the director and the crew.

"We're always rushing to film and we end up neglecting our health, so we often get sick for the whole week after wrapping up," Lin said. "But this time, I was so well rested that I could go to the film editors the day after we wrapped the shoot. I realized this is the kind of work style that's healthy and correct."

《夕霧花園》李心潔請兩位英文老師,苦練馬來西亞英式英文
Photo Credit: Applause Entertainment
Lin Sinje in "The Garden of Evening Mists"
About the screenplay of The Garden of Evening Mists

The movie adaption for The Garden has been underway for several years. Initially, the producers hired a local screenwriter and director who are familiar with Malaysia's history and culture. However, due to their familiarity and attachment to the original novel, they ended up handing in a 200-page script without considering how it would play out on screen. In the end, the producers asked Richard Smith, a foreign screenwriter, to write an adapted screenplay.

Lin is also a talented screenwriter. His debut work had won Best Original Screenplay at the 45th Golden Horse Awards, and his subsequent film Starry Starry Night (2011) was also shortlisted for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Garden is the first movie where Lin directs an adapted screenplay penned by someone else. "Richard had a very good foundation. He knew the core of each act and understood that a screenplay is to facilitate imagery," Lin said.

In Smith's original script, he didn't accentuate the relationship between the two sisters in the story. But Lin suggested dramatizing the painful goodbye to magnify Yun Ling's self-guilt and internal struggle, allowing the viewer to deeply sympathize with Yun Ling's emotions.

《夕霧花園》阿部寬變職人,苦練茶道、刺青、園藝等日本技藝
Photo Credit: Applause Entertainment
Hiroshi Abe in "The Garden of Evening Mists"

If we examine The Garden closely, we're reminded of wartime romance films like The English Patient (1996). In the face of history, Lin kept a humbled attitude and felt embarrassed to find out he had very little understanding of Southeast Asia.

"I always thought of myself as a knowledgeable person who's quite familiar with international affairs. But after this film, I realized I knew nothing about Southeast Asian history, including how Japan had invaded Malaya just an hour before attacking Pearl Harbor, and how the British government established 'new villages' to segregate Malayan Chinese in an attempt to cut off support for the Communist Party," Lin admitted.

The Garden's beauty and sorrow largely come from its main theme: love. Lin portrayed an adult love story in the backdrop of a turbulent era, tackling Malaysia's history as a British colony, its scars from WWII, as well as its violent clashes with the Malayan Communist Party. Although the historical background over the span of 30 years is not the core of the story, it is a crucial element in delivering deeper emotions. Time is another theme hidden behind love: What Yun Ling and Aritomo experienced cannot be understood and relieved at the same time and space. Both the protagonists and the viewer would need the given time and distance to release themselves. Lin's profound portrayal takes us on a mesmerizing journey to search for humanity and serenity in the garden of evening mists.

"I hope The Garden of Evening Mists will become a classic love story for the Taiwanese audience. A moving tale with the backdrop of a turbulent era — I hope it can be remembered as one of those films, and it can be a film that lingers with you long after you step out of the theater. And for Malaysia's historical baggage... the fans who're interested can search and study it afterward and let it sink in," Lin said.


The 56th Golden Horse Awards Ceremony will be held on November 23, 2019.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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2019 Golden Horse Awards:

Established in 1962, the Golden Horse Awards are among the most prestigious and time-honored film awards in the world of Sinophone cinema. This year, China banned the Golden Horse Awards and withdrew all the Chinese and Hong Kong films from the competition. Despite Chinese censorship and suppression, the Golden Horse will still honor the talents from Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries. The final results will be revealed at the Golden Horse Awards Ceremony on November 23, 2019.

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