The Garden of Evening Mists (Malaysia, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

The opening film of the 2020 Osaka Asian Film Festival is Taiwanese director Tom Lin’s handsomely shot historical drama The Garden of Evening Mists. It features an array of international talent who bring the same-named Booker Prize shortlisted novel by Malaysian writer Tan Twan En to the screen. The slow-burn story takes place during decades of conflict in Malaysia and is seen from the perspective of one character caught in the grasp of its history and a risky romance. It is a hefty work so Lin and British screenwriter Richard Smith have taken a schematic approach to the material that uses flashbacks to gradually reveal wartime secrets, traumas and the redemptive effect of love.

It begins in 1980s Malaysia with successful middle-aged judge Teoh Yun Ling (Sylvia Chang) travelling to a British tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands. She is on the verge of winning a seat on the Supreme Court but her links to an alleged Japanese spy she met at the place 30 years previously have been unearthed by political rivals, forcing her to dig into his past and conduct some relationship archaeology. As she sifts through old artifacts and texts, the narrative segues into extended flashbacks that take us back to just after World War II when there was a Communist insurgency against British colonialists. This was when she first met the so-called spy.

Braving military crackdowns and rebel attacks, a younger and far more fiery Yun Ling (Lee Sinje) travels to the same plantation for a meeting with famous yet reclusive gardener Aritomo Nakamura (Hiroshi Abe). We may wonder how this meeting will go because Yun Ling is a war crimes researcher who diligently compiles the history of former soldiers who will be sent to the gallows. Her work is possibly a way to salve her burning hatred of the Japanese, the cause of which we learn more about with further flashbacks that explore her survival during the Japanese occupation and the fate of her sister. Some of these sequences are bone-chilling despite being circumspect in the way they are shot. We understand the intensity of Yun Ling’s a purpose, her desire to commission Aritomo to build a garden as a memorial for her sister who died in an internment camp.

It is a testy meeting as Yun Ling’s brashness and determination clashes with Aritomo’s Japanese formality and reticence. He declines her requests but proposes Yun Ling learn gardening by becoming his apprentice. After initial reluctance, Yun Ling starts opening herself up to gardening which acts as a way for Aritomo to explain his philosophies on life and, thus, their work becomes personal. The garden acts as a metaphor for their growing bond and it also serves as an image of the care they provide each other in a tumultuous world. As they tame the wild landscape, they also tame their emotions and the garden becomes a sanctuary, a safe space amidst the wider political and cultural conflicts surrounding them.

Nonetheless, conflict is forever building just outside of the frame with the recurrent radio news reports of communist attacks playing in the background. Then it comes crashing into their sanctuary with sudden and brutal violence, much like the memories Yun Ling rehashes of her wartime experience.

As characters wrestle with each memory and violent action, the narrative furthers its examination of how people deal with trauma and horrific memories. We witness the gardening begin a process of healing that the battle-scarred Yun Ling doesn’t immediately recognize. The slightly older Aritomo, who practices Horimono full-body tattoos, also uses it to serve as a way for him to atone for his participation in Japanese colonial projects. The true nature of his presence in Malaysia proves to be a mystery based on real-world crimes such as the Yamashita Gold and comfort stations, and it is all brought together through the spiritually and physically intimate acts of gardening leading to many sensual moments.

Lee and Abe prove to be likeable as they bicker over small-scale and seemingly pointless tasks that serve to master the disordered landscape and bring harmony to the wild. They have chemistry when voicing opposing views on colonialism and wartime atrocities and the arc into their relationship feels organic. Kartik Vijay’s wonderful widescreen vistas of tea fields and the sun-kissed garden look alternately beautiful and mysterious, depending on the season or time period. It’s the perfect place for the characters’ long relationship to play out.

Their garden helps to resolve the mysteries of the past in the present-day narrative as the older Yun Jing completes exploring her psycho-geography and discovers a larger message in the decades-old work the two laboured over. The narrative ends on a note that speaks of a pure love, giving the film a hefty emotional punch which Chang really sells on camera when Yun Jing recognizes she can finally lay decades of anger aside.

The Garden of Evening Mists is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 6 and 13.