Based on the award-winning 2012 novel of the same name by Penang-born author Tan Twan Eng, The Garden Of Evening Mists <夕霧花園> made headlines after it earned an incredible 9 Golden Horse Awards nominations including Best Feature Film, Best Director and Best Leading Actress for (Angelica) Lee Sinje last year.
Even though it only took home a single award (Best Makeup & Costume Design), it’s hard to deny the attention that the movie has been getting so far. Told mostly in flashbacks during the post-WWII era of Malaya, The Garden Of Evening Mists <夕霧花園> follows a young woman named Yun Ling (Lee Sinje) seeking a reputable imperial gardener (Hiroshi Abe’s Nakamura Aritomo) in Cameron Highlands to help her build a Japanese garden to honour for her late sister (Serene Lim’s Yun Hong). However, Aritomo declined her offer but eventually agree to help her in a different way by learning from him through hands-on gardening work.
Elsewhere, the movie also focuses on the 1980s era where the older Yun Ling (Sylvia Chang), now working as a judge vying for a seat in the Federal Court, returns to Cameron Highlands to settle her issue related to her past love affair with Aritomo. There are even flashbacks about how Yun Ling and Yun Hong used to endure the trauma while being imprisoned by the Japanese army in the internment camp during World War II, with Yun Hong forced to work as a sex slave.
No doubt that juggling three aforementioned narrative timelines back and forth isn’t exactly an easy task. In lesser hands, it might end up messy and confusing but Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-Yu (2011’s Starry Starry Night <星空> and 2015’s Zinnia Flower <百日告別>) and British screenwriter Richard Smith did a good job putting them all together, albeit its two-hour length bogs down every now and then with some of the movie’s less-than-compelling moments.
Still, Tom Lin Shu-Yu’s creative decision of approaching his film in a slow and methodical manner nicely juxtaposed with the picturesque scenery of Cameron Highlands. It almost has the calming Zen-like quality in it, thanks to Kartik Vijay’s gorgeous widescreen cinematography. Not to mention Onn San’s melancholy score beautifully complemented the slow-burn drama approach in The Garden Of Evening Mists <夕霧花園>.
Acting-wise, Lee Sinje delivers both engaging and sympathetic performance as Yun Ling while screen veteran Sylvia Chang pulls off a solid supporting turn as the older version of the character. The only exception is Lee Sinje’s limited English delivery, which tends to sound as if she’s reading her lines from the cue cards. Hiroshi Abe’s quietly affecting and stoic portrayal as the self-exiled imperial gardener Nakamura Aritomo is equally commendable while his chemistry with Lee Sinje is undoubtedly one of the highlights in this film.
But interestingly enough, Serene Lim shines the most as the ill-fated younger sister Yun Hong, even though her role is more of an extended cameo appearance. Whereas the movie is largely blessed with a fine ensemble cast, the same cannot be said for Julian Sands, who likes to overact with exaggerated expressions as Yun Ling’s old friend, Frederik Gemmell.