HBO to make screen adaptation of Malaysian award-winning novel The Garden Of Evening Mists

Hiroshi Abe and Angelica Lee Sinje will star in Tan Twan Eng’s acclaimed novel, which was shortlisted in 2012 for the Man Booker prize and won the Man Asian Literary prize. It is scheduled for release in 2019

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 8:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2018, 7:19pm

Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden Of Evening Mists put Malaysia on the literary map when it was shortlisted in 2012 for the Man Booker prize and won the Man Asian Literary prize. Now, it has a chance to repeat the same success for the country in the movie world as the acclaimed novel is being adapted for cinema.

The announcement was made at a press event recently with the cast and crew in Kuala Lumpur’s colonial hotel, the Majestic. Built pre-World War two, it’s a stately structure rich with pedigree and taste, not unlike the romanticism and elegance the book conjures.

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Financed by HBO Asia and produced by Malaysia’s Astro Shaw and Finas (National Film Council of Malaysia), the project boasts a star-studded international cast including John Hannah, David Oakes, Julian Sands and Sylvia Chang Ai-chia. In the romantic leads are Japanese superstar Hiroshi Abe and actress Angelica Lee Sinje.

“The novel is very in-depth in describing my character including her life from the Japanese war camp all the way to her 60s,” says Lee, who plays the title role of Yun Ling, a young Chinese-Malaysian law student who endures an emotionally scarring experience in the occupation. After the war, she retreats to the tranquillity of the Cameron Highlands and develops a complex relationship with a Japanese gardener, played by Abe, exiled from his country.

Given the task to distil the engrossing book into a film is Taiwan director Tom Lin Shu-yu, whose sensitive handling of deeply emotional and personal movies like Zinnia Flower and Starry Starry Night suggest he’s a pretty good fit to bring this Asian tale to an international audience.

“When I was approached, halfway through reading it I knew I wanted to do this book,” Lin recalls. “At that time I didn’t know much about Malaysia but the story was so moving and the character Yun Ling was so relatable. I guess the big difference is this is my first historical period movie, so there’s a lot of research to put in and we’ve worked very hard to get it right historically and emotionally.”

Covering a period from Japanese occupation to post-independent Malaysia in the 1980s, it’s a sprawling story with an intimate core. Amid the historical backdrop of war camps and colonialism, there are powerful themes of healing, memory and forgiveness. Principal photography began in May and the production is shooting much of it on location in the Cameron Highlands, just outside Kuala Lumpur.

“The garden plays an integral part of the story so we built it. I assume when we finish the shoot, the landowner will keep the house and make it a theme site,” director Lin adds. “We’re very proud of the house and the garden. The story is based on reality so we’re using as little CGI as possible. Even the mist. But it is tricky shooting outdoors in Malaysia.”

One person who has chosen to take a step back from the film is author Tan, leaving the script duties to BAFTA-winning Scottish writer Richard Smith. In spite of the hands-off approach, he wholeheartedly supports and endorses the cast and crew.

“I had a look at the previous to final script and I gave them my comments but the final script I decided I shouldn’t read it at all and just put my faith in Tom and the cast. I’m sure they will do a good job with it,” Tan explains. “A lot of my writer friends have told me that once you’ve sold the rights to a book, it’s better to sever the connection completely. It’s a different medium and you can’t expect your book to be completely, faithfully adapted.”

A lot of my writer friends have told me that once you’ve sold the rights to a book, it’s better to sever the connection completely
Author Tan Twan Eng

Director Lin says: “If we’re talking about the spirit of the book, it’s 100 per cent faithful. Whenever we had to deviate, I try to think in terms of what Tan would think and how his story would flow. Of course we had to make some changes. It‘s a very full novel. If we did it in full, it would be a 10 part series.”

Although it’s a Malaysian story and production, the project still had to go through Hong Kong for the greenlight. That is because HBO Asia’s senior vice-president in charge of original production Jessica Kam-Engle is based in the city, although technically her corporate office is in Singapore.

“It was a personal choice. My family is here. I am from here,” Kam says. “The rest of the company is in Singapore so I travel a lot. But that hasn’t been a problem. To do productions and to expand, you’re going to go to more places. For me to be here it’s easier. To fly to Beijing or Taiwan, it’s easier than from Singapore.

“We are extremely selective with movies and pick very high quality projects. The Garden Of Evening Mists happens to fit the bill. It’s not just a Malaysian girl in love with a Japanese man but at that time it was a British colony and there’s a lot of Chinese presence. By nature, the story is multinational. It has a very strong Malaysian DNA but can appeal to the rest of the world.”

The project also represents a bold step for HBO Asia in terms of taking its feature films platform to the next level. The bulk of its original TV and films have been regional products whether it’s Malaysian and Singaporean series or programmes for China. Tan’s award-winning book is in English.

“I’m not saying we are specifically looking for something in English but we do look for things that will travel and this one has many elements that can reach a broad audience. HBO Asia covers more than 20 regions. Usually, feature films tend to look at one regional market first. This project just fits our brief in terms of what we are looking for,” Kam notes, adding the movie is scheduled for a 2019 international release.

A solid behind the camera team aside, the film’s potential success rests on the star appeal of Lee and Abe. Despite not having a common language – Lee speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin, while Abe only has Japanese and limited English – the two tried to made a strong case for their on-screen chemistry.

“Sinje is very kind to me and fed me a lot of good food everyday until I had to say enough,” Abe, through a translator, jokes. “She works very hard and is very focused. Most of the movie is in English so it was quite difficult for me but the director said, just speak broken Japanese English. That is what the character would do.”

For Malaysia-born Lee, there is an extra motivation to bringing this story to the screen.

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“I have been [professionally] based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and have only done one Malaysian movie about 10 years ago. I always want to work again at home and play a Malaysian character that I can relate to. After reading this script, I was so elated and deeply moved by the story and character.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to work on an international production too.”