'The Garden of Evening Mists': Film Review | Busan 2019

Courtesyof Busan International Film Festival
A sturdy, well-mounted historical romance.

Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng’s award-wining historical novel gets a lush adaptation by Taiwanese helmer Tom Shu-Yu Lin.

A Malaysian woman haunted by wartime atrocities, the death of her sister and a complicated relationship with a possible Japanese spy are threaded together in a lyrical, sprawling, historical romance along the lines of The English Patient (if not quite that grandiose) in Taiwanese director Tom Shu-Yu Lin’s The Garden of Evening Mists. Adapting the 2012 Man Booker-shortlisted novel by Tan Twan Eng — it won Man’s last Asian Literary Prize in 2013 — screenwriter Richard Smith (whose only previous feature was 2004’s Trauma) jettisons a good deal of the novel’s lengthy cultural explainers and meditations on colonialism in order to craft a leaner (some will argue gutted), delicately mysterious narrative accented by the book’s themes rather than driven by them.

By that same token, many of the more illuminating and sensual metaphors and images have also been jettisoned, along with the moral shading of many key characters — a wise choice if the producers were trying to avoid a miniseries’ running time. What’s left amounts to a fairly standard, if sumptuously produced romance that touches on survivor’s guilt, the creation of history and memory for both a single woman and her country (the book’s denser basic framework).

Co-produced by HBO Asia, Garden of Evening Mists has already picked up nine Golden Horse nominations (including for best film, director, screenplay and actress for Lee Sinje), and after its bow at Busan is likely to find a robust audience in Asia-Pacific, given the pan-regional all-star cast and recognizable World War II legacies. Polished production and accessible storytelling will attract attention from niche markets worldwide.

The story toggles among Japanese-occupied Malaya during WWII, the post-war Communist insurgency years and independent Malaysia in 1980. It starts in 1980, with internment camp survivor, War Crimes Tribunal researcher and judge Teoh Yun Ling (Sylvia Chang) in line for a seat on the federal bench. Her past relationship with a suspected Japanese spy, however, puts her appointment in jeopardy. She meets up with old friend Frederick (Julian Sands), whose father Magnus (John Hannah) ran a tea plantation in 1950 and introduced Yun Ling (played as a young woman by Lee in her first film in four years) to his tenant, self-exiled Japanese Imperial gardener Aritomo Nakamura (Abe Hiroshi).

Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling wants Aritomo to build the garden she promised her younger sister Yun Hong (relative newcomer Serene Lim) before she died; Yun Hong was also forced into a comfort station. He refuses, but invites her to work on the garden he’s completing to learn how to build one herself. Naturally, they become lovers. As the older Yun Ling sifts through the remnants of Aritomo’s cottage, she reflects on the horrors she suffered during and after the war, and the film reflects on the nature of remembrance and who has dominion over it.

That’s the skeleton of what is essentially a historical romance that also weaves classical horimono tattooing and Yamashita’s gold into its plot. Though at times Smith’s script is overly expositional, it finds a way to tackle (however lightly) some thorny issues, maintaining a leisurely pace without ever becoming turgid. Admittedly the pic steers a broadly digestible course: Aritomo is far more traditionally “likeable” than his literary counterpart; the colonial dynamics and conflicting views as expressed by Yun Ling and Magnus have been sidelined; and completely absent is a Japanese historian wrestling with national guilt. But some of Evening Mists’ page-to-screen changes were wise, chiefly a lingering obsession with Yun Ling for Frederick and Yun Ling’s struggle with aphasia. The latter underpins the story’s deconstruction of memory, but it’s not missed.

The film relies heavily on Chang’s inherently tough wisdom, and as usual she effortlessly conveys all sorts of conflicting emotions in a single look or a loaded “That’s very kind of you,” when confronted with the man whose guerilla brother was at the center of a violent incident in the past. And, for the most part, Hiroshi and Lee work through their rage and regret in comfortable sync. Ironically, they’re most affecting when calling each other out on their prejudices and allowing themselves to be vulnerable. If there’s a weak performance link, it’s Sands, whose exclamatory delivery often seems out of step with the subject matter.

Lin demonstrated a gift for the fantastical in 2011's Starry Starry Night, and here he converts that to an almost relaxed naturalism. He is blessed with stellar technical support to help that along, first in luminous widescreen photography by Kartik Vijay, whose images of the calm green tea fields, the misty garden and the internment camp alternate between earthy, ethereal and glaring clarity. Production designer Penny Pei-ling Tsai and costumer Nina Edwards stay on the right side of period detail, never getting too precious about time and space.

Production companies: Astro Shaw, HBO Asia
Cast: Lee Sinje, Hiroshi Abe, Sylvia Chang, David Oakes, Julian Sands, John Hannah, Serena Lim, Eric Chen, Wong Mun Kong, Tak Kheng Hua
Director: Tom Shu-Yu Lin
Screenwriter: Richard Smith, based on the novel by Tan Twan Eng
Producers: Elyce Chin, Syahrul Imran Shariffuddin, Najwa Abu Bakar
Executive producers: Henry Tan, Raja Jastina Arshad, Agnes Rozario, Najwa Abu Bakar
Director of photography: Kartik Vijay
Production designer: Penny Pei-ling Tsai
Costume designer: Nina Edwards
Editor: Mun Thye Soo
Music: Onn San
Casting: Manuel Puro, Jerrica Lai
Venue: Busan International Film Festival

World sales: CJ Entertainment

In English, Cantonese, Japanese, Malay
120 minutes