On 16th January 2020, I attended the sneak preview for the film adaptation of The Garden of Evening Mists, and I have Thoughts. I will preface this by saying that while I liked the Mr Tan Twan Eng’s book, I did not love it, and had really wanted the film to surpass its ink-and-paper source material—and it did, at least in the first half. There are many things that honestly excited me about the film’s craft. There is a flashback scene that occurred early in the movie when Yun Ling was talking to her sister, Yun Hong, about Japanese gardens through a window. They appeared wary, but cheerful. They jumped at every noise. Then, a Japanese soldier entered the little space where Yun Hong was and began to rape her, while Yun Ling hid with her hands over her mouth. The camera dollied out and we see that Yun Hong’s little bamboo alcove is just one of dozens, in a prison housing comfort women. This burned an indelible image in my mind, and even this morning, I was bothered by flashbacks to that scene. I feel the misery and anger deep in my bone still, in a way that the book never made me feel.
The film cleverly used its medium to great effect in a few other scenes, like how Yun Ling’s scarred back was revealed as she moved from differently lit parts of the room, and when Aritomo had Yun Ling sit down as he explained shakkei (borrowed scenery) to her, I could feel the same revelation that Yun Ling felt just with a single camera manoeuvre. When Yun Ling asked Aritomo if he must always speak in that didactic, mysterious sensei kind of way, I felt the film winking at me because that was how I was feeling at the time.
There were many judicious changes made to bring the book to screen. The subplot involving Yoshikawa Tatsuji was excised, and instead of dealing with impending aphasia in the twilight of her life, Yun Ling instead was fighting against a scandal (her relationship with Aritomo) that proved to impede her rise to the Federal Court. The subplots involving the Communists guerilla fighter were cut up beyond recognition—which I wouldn’t have a problem with except for its abrupt and inorganic resolution. There were a few emotionally charged conversations between Aritomo and Yun Ling that ended abruptly as well, making me wonder if there were more to the scenes that had to be scissored out because the performances were not up to par.
I have not seen Lee Sinje in any other films before but her performance in this film felt uneven, and the cracks in her performance could be seen when she was thanklessly saddled with huge swathes of exposition. I felt that the film have a lot of trouble bringing the viewers up to speed on the plot, particularly in the latter half when older Yun Ling (Sylvia Chang) explained to older Frederik (Julian Sands) regarding her tattoo and the garden. I felt like the film had no confidence in the audience in feeling the need to explain it all in excruciating detail. Julian Sands was entirely consigned to looking bewildered, and he seemed so confused at times that I wonder if he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease—the one Yun Ling is suppose to have.
I think by not having Magnus and Frederik be South Africans, they lost a compelling narrative surrounding anti-British sentiments shared by them and Yun Ling. And personally, I found the book’s ending to be much more poignant compared to the film’s, which I thought was a garbled mess. “Maybe when I’m bankrupt” joked Yun Ling, when asked if she would unearth Yamashita’s gold. While I did not agree with Yun Ling’s action to let the gold lay fallow in the book, I at least understand why (I think she should have dug it up to start a fund in her sister’s name for all the victims of the Japanese in the war, a lot of which are still around today—and that would serve her sister’s memories better). But I was completely mystified by movie Yun Ling’s decision to leave it buried.
Still it is one of the best looking, most well made Malaysian films I have ever seen (even though drone shots of the tea plantation got old after awhile). Cameron Highlands have never looked more inviting. A friend of mine who did not read the book actually prefers the latter half of the film, so I wonder if having book knowledge actually degraded my enjoyment it.