What you need to know
The Garden of Evening Mists is a film we can watch and rewatch, and still can’t stop savoring the beauty of it like the Chopin record that never leaves the record player.
Could all wounds be healed by the passage of time?
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 a war-ridden British Malaya both during and after the Japanese occupation.
At a cozy dinner, Magnus Gemmell (John Hannah), an expat who has settled in Malaya’s Cameron Highlands, gushes over his love for Chopin’s first piano concerto, a record that never leaves his record player. He refers to the piece as “the impression of someone gently looking at a spot that brings to mind a thousand happy memories,” describing Chopin’s loving gaze at the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska.
The Garden is the embodiment of such a fond impression, intertwined with the trauma of loss and wartime atrocities. Throughout the film, Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-yu (林書宇) indulges us with the ethereal sights of the Japanese garden and the beauty of Cameron Highlands, but also forces us to confront excruciating flashbacks where the women in captivity were raped and tortured by Japanese soldiers.
Cinematographer Kartik Vijay drops us right into the 1980s Cameron Highlands with a stunning opening scene, where an older Teoh Yun Ling (Sylvia Chang) drives through the meandering roads along the lush tea fields. We’re delighted by the various soothing shades of green from the aerial view of the highlands. A breathtaking prologue film score, composed by Oon San and Nasran Nawi, sets up a hint of suspense and drama.
Soon after Yun Ling greets her old friend Frederick Gemmel (Julian Sands) at the tea estate, we find out she hasn’t come back for 30 years. She’s now a judge in line for a seat in the Federal court, but her appointment is deterred by her past love affair with an alleged Japanese spy.
We’re then taken on a journey through Yun Ling’s memories in the 1950s. An internment camp survivor, Yun Ling (Angelica Lee) works at the war crimes tribunal after World War II while searching for the camp where her sister Teoh Yun Hong (Serene Lim) was buried alive. After many failed attempts, Yun Ling gives up her search and sets out to build a Japanese garden for her sister, something she had promised during the war.
She travels to Cameron Highlands to see the Japanese gardener, Aritomo Nakamura (Hiroshi Abe), who used to work at the imperial palace. Aritomo refuses to work on Yun Ling’s garden, but says she could stay and learn instead.
Aritomo is set to be a man in his 50s in the novel, but Abe (also in his 50s) comes off as a younger and more attractive counterpart. The on-screen chemistry between Lee and Abe is dynamic and intricate: a headstrong Yun Ling with immense hatred for the Japanese encounters Aritomo, who introduces her to Japanese arts like gardening and body tattoos and at times offers an opposing worldview. The two fall in love despite the physical and mental scars from the war, but Aritomo disappears one day without bidding farewell.
Lin’s sensibility in capturing the process of grief and recovery from Zinnia Flower (2015) again tears our heart apart in The Garden — then sews it back together.
He draws an acute observation of human frailty and magnifies Yun Ling’s guilt for leaving her sister in the camp and for falling in love with a Japanese. Lee’s delivery of Yun Ling’s conflicting emotions and her defiant look of perseverance first captivate our attention, then submerge us in her pain. Sylvia Chang’s performance as an older Yun Ling is equally riveting if not more. With a soft ray of sunlight illuminating her face, Chang’s longing gaze holds the camera and our breath, telling us a thousand words in silence.
While the characters’ dialogue seems unnatural at times (especially with Julian Sands’s exaggerated delivery), screenwriter Richard Smith has skillfully condensed a complex historical novel into a 120-minute screenplay. Aritomo’s conversation in English is made especially believable with incomplete sentences and imperfect grammar.
Lin revealed that when he first received the script, it was all written in English. “But this was not the Malaysia I know,” Lin said during a Q&A session. “The Malaysia I know is incredibly diverse and speaks multiple languages.” With Lin’s suggestion, the screenplay was modified to include Cantonese, Malay, and Japanese, genuinely reflecting the cultural diversity in the country.
His perspective and in-depth field research in Malaysia added more authenticity to the production itself. The actors themselves have also contributed to the conversation by bringing to the table what they know from their respective cultures.
Co-produced by HBO Asia and Astro Shaw, The Garden has a cinematic texture that’s on par with a Hollywood production, revealing an ambition to reach a general audience in the West. But it’s not just another Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) with yet another orientalizing look at an Asian culture. We can credit The Garden’s diverse regional cast and crew members for nailing down even local accents and period details.
The historical context, however, is slightly diluted for a better focus on themes like humanity and grief. Lin trusts us as a sophisticated enough audience to do our own research afterward if we’re intrigued. The author, Tan Twan Eng, also never overexplains Malay words like kopitiam and mabuk in the original novel — either we’re familiar with the terms or Google is readily at our service. Both the film and the novel leave us stunned by not knowing Malaysia better and wanting to learn more. The Garden of Evening Mists is a film we can watch and rewatch, and still can’t stop savoring the beauty of it like the Chopin record that never leaves the record player.
Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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