THE AWARD-WINNING film adaptation of Penangite Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists – now showing in Malaysian cinemas – entangles protagonists Teoh Yun Ling, the lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, and Nakamura Aritomo, an exiled former gardener of the Japanese emperor, in a cross-cultural romance set amid troubling times on the Malayan peninsula.
Yugiri in sketches.
It is a visual poem expressing both turmoil and tranquillity.
The film is a cinematic labour of love for director Tom Lin who took on the project almost three years ago. Armed with a sizeable budget, Lin allowed for artistic freedom with the film sets. Yugiri, for one, was brought to life in Temoh, a small town midway between Kampar and Tapah. “Ideally, we wanted to build Yugiri in Cameron Highlands, but there was a lack of space, and we weren’t able to find a good location.” It was finally down to two pieces of land in Genting Highlands and Temoh. “We decided on Temoh mainly because of its geographical resources, i.e. the lake and mountains; in a way, we were also ‘borrowing scenery’ for the garden. The design was based on the land we chose, what was needed in the story and what we needed cinematically,” he says.
Determined to imbue the adaptation with a sense of realism, Lin was sparing in his use of CGI (computer-generated imagery), which also meant that filming was subjected to the whims of the weather. “The mists were hard to control; the stones and the gardening scenes were gruelling for both the actors and the crew. The burning and explosion of the Japanese internment camp was also very scary to do,” he recalls. “Our demolition team had to rig all of the huts and structures to make sure they burned at the same time. And because the structures were close to the trees above, we had to make sure that they didn’t burn for too long, so as to not set fire to the entire forest. The Fire and Rescue unit was on standby to put the fires out as soon as we got the shots. It was also too dangerous to actually put Lee Sinje, who plays the younger Yun Ling, in the scene, so we shot plates of her walking up to the fire on actual location with additional green screen and placed it together with the fire shot during post-production.”
The demolition team had to rig all of the huts and structures to ensure they burned simultaneously.
One particularly challenging location to film, Lin says, was the Mossy Forest of Gunung Brinchang, Pahang. “I fell in love with the forest and decided on the spot that that’s the place where Yun Ling will relate her traumatic experience at the internment camp to Aritomo. The place itself has a magical feel; the spirits of the forest are very alive and present there. Yet location-wise, it was very hard to get to for the crew, but the end results were well worth the effort. I think being outsiders with fresh eyes (Lin hails from Taiwan and cinematographer Kartik Vijay is from India), it wasn’t hard for us to see the beauty of Malaysia – which I’m afraid many Malaysians tend to take for granted – and capture it on camera.”
Finding the “Right Look”
In deciding the overall “feel” for Evening Mists, Lin and Vijay began pre-production by discussing not just about other films, but paintings and photographs as well. “We would discuss each scene and what it can potentially look like; and how to differentiate the two main timelines of the story, keeping the 80s mostly static, while the 50s was shot mostly handheld. For complex scenes where we knew we would have limited time on set, Kartik and I would storyboard out the entire scene. For simpler set-ups, I would give the crew shot lists; and on the day, the first assistant director Anne Wu, Kartik and I would discuss our shooting order. Along with the production designer Penny Tsai, Kartik and I would also discuss the colour of different scenes, including the texture and colours of the sets and costumes,” he says, adding that the character of Yun Ling is based on renowned Malaysian lawyer and diplomat P.G. Lim.
The Japanese internment camp was constructed in Sungai Lembing.
Textbooks and documentaries on the Japanese Occupation and Malayan Emergency were equally veritable sources of information for Lin. But where the subject of comfort women is concerned, addressing it in the film was a non-issue, he says. “The only time I would hesitate about depicting historical happenings is if I wasn’t sure if it was true or not, and I would do more research to find out.” What Lin struggled with though “was coming up with how I wanted to show it. I want to show the truth, but I do not want to stir up more anger and hatred. I knew I needed the scene to be harrowing, but I didn’t want to take the direct, graphic approach. In the end, the scene in the international version that I devised worked very well. The dolly out shot was a bit too graphic for the Malaysian censors, however, so we had to alter it a little by slowly digitally zooming in when the camera dollies out. I think the end result should still be pretty distressing, but I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers.”
Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton