HomeReviewsThe Garden of Evening Mists (Malaysia, 2019) [OAFF 2020]
The Garden of Evening Mists (Malaysia, 2019) [OAFF 2020]
4 March, 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
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.
Jason Maher is a UK-based film fan and freelance writer. He has combined the two to write about films at his blog Genkinahito as well as writing for Anime UK News the movie magazine Gigan. Having grown up watching films from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, he has developed a love for East Asian cinema and specialises in writing news articles, reviews, and has even been known to occasionally interview a director or two. He spends his private time learning Japanese, watching films, and hanging out with friends and family whom he bores with film trivia. He can be contacted via Twitter.