Although Garden of Evening Mists is set entirely in Malaysia, with only Cantonese and English spoken, the director is Taiwanese. Tom Lin (林書宇), known for his high school romance Winds of September (九降風) and the tragically personal Zinnia Flower (百日告別), takes the helm for this epic historical romance that was chosen as the closing film for last month’s Golden Horse Film Festival.
It’s an intriguing collaboration that perhaps foreshadowed the strengthening of ties between the Chinese-language cinema industries of Taiwan and Southeast Asia due to China’s absence from this year’s Golden Horse Awards.
Garden of the Evening Mists was nominated for nine awards at Golden Horse, but winning just one for Best Makeup and Costume Design. Featuring Chinese-Malaysians in post-World War II British Malaya with a significant Japanese element, there was indeed much creative opportunity for fashion design, from Western period clothing to Chinese-style cheongsams to Japanese robes.
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com
Lead actress Angelica Lee (李心潔) walks between many roles and social spheres throughout the movie — from tortured prisoner to war tribunal researcher to high society member to Japanese garden laborer and intimate lover. And while her acting speaks for itself in handling this passionate character haunted by past trauma, the outfits definitely provide a finishing touch.
The film is based on the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel of the same name by Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng, and is set in a time of turmoil as the country has just returned to British rule while recovering from the scars of Japanese occupation. Unrest continues, however, as the Malayan Communist Party wages guerilla warfare in an attempt to drive out the British.
To fulfill the dream of her sister, who died in a Japanese internment camp, Yun Ling (Lee) ends up as an apprentice for the mysterious Aritomo (Hiroshi Abe), a self-exiled imperial gardener who has been building his “Evening Mist” garden in the lush Cameron Highlands. Abe personifies the garden — philosophical, esoteric and seemingly cold and unemotional, but also alluring and calming. He takes his time making his workers laboriously move giant stones until the stone tells him that it’s in the right place.
It’s a riveting tale that, although moves at a relatively slow pace, rarely bores. It fully plays upon the complex and tense racial relations during that time; Yun Ling, who hates the Japanese, is briefly courted by a British official’s son, but she ends up getting closer to Aritomo, who may or may not have been working for the Japanese during the war.
The strong and engaging storytelling drives the film. While this reviewer has not read the novel, it’s not hard to infer from the movie why the book was so successful. Some complain that screenwriter Richard Smith got rid of the book’s lengthy musings on culture, race and colonialism, which is indeed a bit understated given the diversity of the characters. But that probably would have bogged down the movie, which is already 120 minutes long; what’s shown is enough to make the point for a feature film.
The prolific Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang (張艾嘉) plays Yun Ling 30 years later, delivering an emotional performance. Chang is no stranger to international collaborations as a mainstay of Chinese-language cinema in China, Hong Kong and Malaysia and Singapore; and she’s in her element here in an English-speaking role.
Lin, by contrast, doesn’t have that much international experience. His 2011 Starry Starry Night was a collaboration between Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, based on a book by Taiwanese illustrator and author Jimmy (幾米), but this is a new challenge for him joining a Malaysian-British production with quality that rivals Hollywood (it’s co-produced by HBO Asia). It was a completely foreign story for him — in fact, he says in an interview that he didn’t even know Malaysia was occupied by Japan.
Maybe it does take an “outsider” director, albeit one from a country that has also suffered its fair share of colonialism, to truly make this film work. Nevertheless, Lin does a great job and hopefully the success of Garden of Evening Mists opens up Taiwanese directors to more overseas opportunities, as more international experience will only bolster Taiwan’s rapidly-improving cinema industry.
Garden of Evening Mists
Directed by: Chang Tso-chi (張作驥)
Starring: Angelica Lee (李心潔) as Yun Ling, Hiroshi Abe as Arimoto, Sylvia Chang (張艾嘉) as older Yun Ling
Languages: English and Cantonese with English and Chinese subtitles
Running time:120 minutes
Taiwan release: In theaters
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