The garden of great expectations

A time to bloom: Guests at the special screening of ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ posing with Twan Eng.

THIS is the column I have waited six years to write. It is the third and most crucial part of a story that began even earlier, on Oct 10,2012.

That was the day my column titled “Looking for world adoration” was published. At that time, South Korean singer Psy had brought global “adoration” to his country with his Gangnam Style music video. I wondered whether a critically acclaimed bestseller set in Malaysia written by a Malaysian could be our ticket to fame if it was turned into a movie.

That book was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

As fate would have it, Astro Malaysia Holdings CEO Henry Tan couldn’t sleep in the early hours of Oct 11 and decided to read what he probably thought would be boring – my column – and would lull him to sleep. Instead it got him all excited.

I don’t know what time he finally slept but Henry, who was then chief operating officer for strategy, content and marketing, loved my suggestion and the first thing he did when he got to office was to instruct his Astro Shaw film studio team to read my column, contact Twan Eng and secure the film rights.

When I got wind of that development, I gleefully wrote about it on Oct 8,2014, (almost two years to the date) and I mused “How will this ‘Garden’ grow?”, which was the headline of that article.

I ended by saying I would keep close tabs on the book’s progress to film but there was no news for years and I wondered if the project had been quietly shelved.

After all, the book is a complex, multilayered story that unfolds very slowly. 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, and former 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 returns to unfinished business in Cameron Highlands, to the communist-infested 1950s, when she first went 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.

Literary reviewers around the world lauded the book as “ravishing”, “atmospheric”, “haunting” and “beautiful” and it has won legions of fans. The task of turning the book into film was daunting, to say the least.

Perhaps the challenge and the financing required were indeed too much for Astro Shaw.

But no, Henry remained the driving force behind his team who never gave up on his dream of making a Malaysian movie for the world.

The international cast and crew were finally announced in August last year. And what an amazing assembly it was. Award-winning Malaysian actress Lee Sinje was cast to play the young version of Teoh Yun Ling and Taiwanese veteran star Sylvia Chang as the older Teoh.

Also on board was Abe Hiroshi, one of my favourite actors, who signed up to play Aritomo.

British actors John Hannah, David Oakes and Julian Sanders and Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua (of Phua Chu Kang and Crazy Rich Asians fame) made up the rest of the multinational cast.

As for the vitally important position of director, I had foolishly hoped for Ang Lee but another Taiwanese, Tom Lin, got the job. He was unknown to Malaysians and I wasn’t too sure about him.

At the August press conference, it became clear there would be significant changes to the storyline and even key characters. At that time, Twan Eng had indicated to me he had practically no say in the creative process and while he was too gentlemanly to say anything critical,

I sensed he had concerns about how the film would turn out.

Despite the great cast, I too wondered if the movie would be a success or a train wreck.

I finally got my answer last Thursday, Jan 9, when the Malaysian premiere for The Garden of Evening Mists was held.

But before that, I spoke to Henry about the film last month and he shared why it took so long to bring the film to fruition.

After securing the rights, the team had to decide whether it should be a TV series or a movie.

Since the budget was a major factor, the decision was to make a movie.

“We needed to face reality as a Malaysian company and tailor (the project) to our own affordability and capability, ” Henry told me.

Henry told me the budget for TGOEM is the largest ever for a Malaysian- initiated movie, but declined to say how much. Industry sources put the figure at RM20mil.

And that is truly peanuts compared to Hollywood movie budgets. Crazy Rich Asians, for example, cost US$30mil or RM122mil to make.

Tom Lin told Tapei-based News Lens website that he had to make compromises.

For example, he said “the garden in the novel is massive but we didn’t have enough money to build one and there wasn’t enough space in Cameron Highlands either.”

Money aside, the long gestation period was largely due to the determination to get the right talent mix and script.

The latter was delivered by Scottish screenwriter Richard Smith.

At 9.30pm on Thursday, I sat in the darkened MBO cinema waiting for the start of TGOEM, feeling excited and anxious.

As someone who had read the book twice, I feared being disappointed by the film, which inevitably had to be pared down to fit budget and length.

And then it began. For 120 minutes, my eyes were glued to the screen as I was drawn into the tale that unfolded. When it ended, I stayed to watch all the credits, which named the many Malaysians among the international crew who had made this miracle happen.

I still love the book more but TGOEM is undoubtedly a fantastic film achievement considering the Malaysian-size budget. My friend, Toi See Luon, who watched it without reading the book and had little idea what it was about, loved it.

He said TGOEM did not look cheap at all. It is a classy production with gorgeous cinematography and meticulous attention to detail to depict the different decades in the story timeline. Which clearly shows why the film won Best Makeup and Costume at the recent Taipei Golden Horse Awards.

It is proof of how much can be achieved by Asian filmmakers at a fraction of Hollywood’s overblown budgets.

The film is in English with some Cantonese, a sprinkling of Malay and a touch of Japanese. I must say the Malaysian accent has never sounded so good and natural as this on the big screen.

Lee Sinje’s English lessons, which she started a decade ago, certainly paid off.

Still, there are English subtitles presumably to help foreign audiences overcome our accent and Abe Hiroshi’s occasionally garbled Japanese-accented English.

TGOEM is a critical landmark in Henry’s carefully laid-out plan to raise the quality and popularity of local movies, which started 10 years ago.

Despite the odds, it actually makes very good business sense because there is a huge lucrative market for local filmmakers to tap.

According to Henry, last year, the gross box office was worth RM1.1bil. In 2017, local films accounted for only 5% of total GBO. In 2018, it tripled to 15%. The estimate for 2019 is 13%.

With TGOEM, he hopes to showcase Malaysian movie capability not just to Malaysians but to the world. That’s the next step for him and the team, promoting it internationally and that won’t be cheap.

The last word must go to Twan Eng. As the author, he must have felt like a parent putting his child in the arms of strangers going into an uncertain future.

But his faith was rewarded. He loved almost everything about the film – the cinematography, the aesthetics, the acting, the music, he tells me via email.

“I knew from the start that the film would not – could not – be completely faithful to my novel. It’s called ‘adaptation’ after all, and not ‘replication.’

“Film is a totally visual medium, while my novel is very ‘interior’, so Tom Lin and Richard Smith had to find a way to show Yun Ling’s complex emotions and relationships to the viewers. I think they did it skilfully, ” he adds.

And he approves of how Lin and Smith streamlined the plot and changed certain elements because they “have kept the heart and soul of my book intact.”

Still, Twan Eng is aware that some diehard fans of his book will not be completely satisfied with the film and he has this to say to them: “I respect their viewpoints too, but I’d like to tell them, ‘Do at least only judge the film AFTER you’ve seen it’.”

So how has the “garden” grown? Beautifully. TGOEM opens in cinemas tomorrow. I urge Malaysians to watch it and be amazed. And proud.

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

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