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So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday October 8, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday October 8, 2014 MYT 12:27:58 PM

How will this 'Garden' grow

Thanks to Aunty, a local film studio has set itself the ambitious task of turning an international bestselling novel into a movie.

I BRING exciting news about a book I mentioned in my column almost exactly two years ago.

This was on Oct 10, 2012, when I wrote about “Looking for world adoration and the book was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

At that time, the book was in the running for the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most illustrious literary awards.

Fascinated by how Psy’s Gangnam Style video brought South Korea world attention and “adoration”, I suggested this highly acclaimed novel set in Malaysia written by a Malaysian could be our ticket to fame if it was turned into a movie by a Hollywood or British studio.

Well, what do you know? I didn’t have to look so far. Someone read my column and decided his company should be the one to make the film adaptation.

That someone is Henry Tan, Astro’s chief operating officer for strategy, content and marketing.

Henry told me that after he read my column, he instructed his staff to get the book, contact the author and negotiate for the film rights.

Much as I am delighted and excited by this development, I am also apprehensive because securing the film rights is just the first step in the long and pitfall-ridden process of turning a book into film successfully.

I am sure Henry and his team are well aware of this, especially when Henry said he wants to make not a Malaysian movie but an international one that will fly the Malaysian flag.

For starters, The Garden of Evening Mists isn’t easy to turn into a screenplay. It is a highly complex, multi-layered story that unfolds “Very, very slowly,” as The Guardian review noted.

The Telegraph described it as “a beautiful, dark and wistful exploration of loss and remembrance” centred on the tragic protagonist, retired Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling, who was a prisoner of war during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya.

The novel is set over many decades, moving back and forth from the 1980s when Teoh, diagnosed with aphasia that will gradually rob her of all her memories, returns to unfinished business in Cameron Highlands, to the communist-infested 1950s when she first goes to the Highlands to learn how to create a Japanese garden from Nakamura Aritomo, the enigmatic exiled gardener of Emperor Hirohito, with flashbacks in between to her war imprisonment.

Then there are the subplots involving a former kamikaze pilot, a South African Boer War veteran turned tea planter, Aritomo’s own intriguing story, woodblock printing, tattooing and stolen treasure. Condensing all that into a two-plus hour movie without losing its essence and emotional heart will be no mean feat.

It’s wonderful that the author has confidence that a Malaysian film studio can do justice to his work, but I do have concerns. After all, Astro’s biggest success is The Journey, the highest grossing Malaysian film with RM17.28mil in 56 days.

Much as I liked its quirky charm, The Journey had quite a few shortcomings and it’s not exactly a world-class production. Astro may have grand ambitions with Twan Eng’s book, but will it really invest in it?

Of course, Asians have shown they can do things brilliantly without breaking the bank (think India’s recent awesome achievement of sending a mission to Mars at a fraction of Nasa’s budget) but this film will require way more than the RM3mil it took to make The Journey

As legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki said, “We live in an age when it is cheaper to buy the rights to movies than to make them.”

Seriously, Astro should ask Red Granite Pictures, which financed The Wolf of Wall Street, and was co-founded by Malaysian Riza Aziz to invest in its project. But big budget alone can’t guarantee success. Great films require great directors; someone like Ang Lee, for example, who has been feted as having the “insight into the human heart (which) has allowed his films to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers to speak to audiences all over the world”.

It was Lee who turned Yann Martel’s so-called “unfilmable” 2001 novel Life of Pi into a critically acclaimed box office hit. But, erm, Lee did have a budget of US$120mil (RM391mil) and the film grossed US$609mil (RM1.987bil). If not Lee, then perhaps Malaysian-born Australian director James Wan, who is famous for hits like Conjuring.

I think it’s critical to get a director like Lee or Wan if we want the West to take this film adaptation seriously because they are recognised and respected names in the industry.

And who do I think should play Teoh Yun Ling? Why, Michelle Yeoh, of course. She’s famous, is of the right age and her Malaysian accent will be perfect. What’s more, Yeoh, in an interview with Italian Vogue in December last year, said she loved the book and wanted to see it turned into a movie. And since she worked with Ang Lee on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she can help connect him with Astro.

As for the actor to play Nakamura Aritomo, how about the excellent Ken Watanabe? Yeoh co-starred with him in Memoirs of a Geisha, so....

If Astro does it right and I think it can if it is serious about it, then the rewards can be great. The Garden of Evening Mists is much loved by readers around the world and a well-crafted movie adaptation can only bring plenty of benefits to the nation.

A reader writing in Goodreads.com said among the many things he learned from reading the book was: “Malaysia: its geography, history and heterogeneity. I feel like I was Google-mapped directly down on this peninsula.” That means a box office hit could put us on the tourist map like how The Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand and Game of Thrones for Wales.

Well, Henry and team, the heat is on. Good luck!

> Since Aunty got Astro into this, she will keep close tabs on the developments of this book to film. Feedback to junewong@thestar.com.my.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: June Wong, So Aunty So What

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