Love in a Time of War

loading Filming in Yugiri with Lee Sinje who plays the younger Yun Ling. Photo: Tom Lin.

It’s a history lesson not confined within book chapters, but rather in the recalling and forgetting of memories. The Garden of Evening Mists by celebrated Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng is a portal into a time when Malaya was fraught with distress: the Japanese Occupation has ended, but its effects are still keenly felt; communist guerrilla wars continue to rage on and within the ceaseless chaos, an epic romance quietly blossoms.

The historical novel was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize, and is now screen-adapted for release this January in Malaysia. Financed by HBO Asia and produced by Astro Shaw and the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS), the film features a star-studded international cast, including John Hannah, David Oakes, Julian Sands, Tan Kheng Hua and Sylvia Chang.

Malaysia-born Lee Sinje and Hiroshi Abe play romantic leads Teoh Yun Ling, the lone survivor of a Japanese wartime camp and the enigmatic gardener / suspected spy Nakamura Aritomo; while acclaimed Taiwanese director Tom Lin helms the project.

The film premiered worldwide at the Busan International Film Festival last year, and was subsequently nominated for a whopping nine awards (including for best director, best leading actress for Lee Sinje, best adapted screenplay and best cinematography), and won Best Makeup and Costume Design at the 56th Golden Horse Awards, the most prestigious film awards in the world of Chinese-language cinema.

Penang Monthly catches up with director Tom Lin and author Tan Twan Eng to ponder the question – How challenging is it to adapt a literary novel to screen?

Director Tom Lin (centre) with David Oakes (left) and John Hannah (right). Photo: Tom Lin

“Whenever I do a film adaptation from another source, I do my best to be 100% true to the message of the original,” says Lin. “But of course, with only two hours of running time, the screenwriter Richard Smith and I knew that we would have to make many changes.”

The biggest change, Lin explains, centres on older Yun Ling and her motivation for going back to Cameron Highlands. “Originally, it was her illness that brought her back; her wanting to hold on to what she had wanted to forget all her life. The motivation in the book is more internal, but we decided that for a film audience, it would be more engaging if the motivation was coming from an external threat – her seat at the High Court that is threatened by her past relationship with Aritomo. This way, she needs to actively try to find evidence to prove Aritomo’s innocence.”

The limited screen time also swayed the focus more to one point, Yun Ling’s meeting with Aritomo. “This was another reason for injecting a more active motivation into Yun Ling’s 1980s storyline, because we knew we only have a handful of scenes there and need the audience’s attention. It’s tricky balancing two storylines because if not treated carefully, the audience would care more about one of them than another.”

To simplify the storyline further, the South African character of Magnus Pretorius was also anglicised to become Magnus Gemmell. “If Magnus in the film retained the same nationality as in the book, we would have to explain why that is so because it’s so unusual for someone from South Africa to own a tea plantation in Cameron Highlands. But we did not have the luxury to go into that. The same goes for Professor Tatsuji’s character; he is there to be, in a way, a witness to what the Japanese had done.

“In short, what we did was, we figured out the meaning of a certain thing, be it Magnus’s nationality or what Tatsuji represents, and saw if that fit in with what we were focusing on; and if not, we changed it.”

And how does the author feel about the paring down?

Lin with cinematographer Kartik Vijay. Photo: Tom Lin

“Perhaps I would have been upset by the omission of Tatsuji if I had not watched the film,” Tan admits, “but having viewed it now, I can accept with equanimity that his role had to be excised, otherwise the film would have had an excessively lengthy running time.

“As long as the major characters remain faithful to the novel – in their personalities, motivations, actions – and as long as the themes of the novel have been retained, then I think an author ought to be able to accept the differences between his novel and the film. Right from the start I told myself that the film would be a different creature from my book. That’s why it’s called an ‘adaptation’, and not a ‘replication’, after all. The film has streamlined the novel and shifted certain plot elements around, but the soul of the novel has been left intact and unviolated.”

Tan concedes that literary novels are notoriously difficult to adapt into films. “There are only a handful of films that I feel are as good as the original novels they were based on,” he says, citing The English Patient, The Remains of the Day and Atonement as examples.

“When I began watching the film – via a temporary link sent to me – I was anxious, but within minutes it was obvious to me that the film would be a gorgeously constructed piece of art; every scene was composed and lit like a painting. And by the end of the film I was overwhelmed. So, yes, it has lived up – even exceeded – my expectations.

“Everyone worked incredibly hard on the production – the cast, the crew, everyone. I hope everybody – those who have read the novel and those who haven’t – will go and watch the film. It’s truly a film that will make all Malaysians proud. It’s a film that will make your soul soar to the highest reaches, but, at the same time, shatter your heart into a million fragments,” he says.

The Garden of Evening Mists will premiere in Malaysian cinemas on January 16. In the next issue, we talk to the production team about the film’s artistic focus.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton.

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