The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists is based on a book of the same name by Tan Twan Eng. Jumping back and forth between “present day” 1980s, the 1950s (where the primary story takes place) and the 1940s, it tells the story of Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a Japanese war camp called the Golden Lily. Post-war, Yun Ling seeks out former Japanese Imperial gardener Nakamura Aritomo and asks for his help in building a Japanese garden to fulfil her dead sister’s wish.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Good

  • The production values were top-notch for a local movie (as befits Astro Shaw’s reputation). I found no real fault in the production design, costume design, etc. We don’t get many local “period pieces”, so I appreciated seeing a little bit of the local 1950s stylings on screen.
  • I did quite like the music by Onn San. Not as memorable as John Williams or Hisaishi Joe, but pleasant enough to my ear and tinged with a Japanese sound that suited the story.
  • Abe Hiroshi did not disappoint. He’s probably the main reason I wanted to see this film. I was quite intrigued and impressed that Astro Shaw managed to hire someone of Abe’s calibre. He can’t have been particularly cheap! (Though of course he doesn’t command the same international recognition as Watanabe Ken…)
  • The movie does manage the feat of shifting between three time periods without being confusing. In a sense it’s a story in the 1980s, with flashbacks to the 1950s, and within those flashbacks are more flashbacks to the ’40s. Inception of sorts? haha
  • I was quite impressed by the makeup work on the scars on Yun Ling’s back. It looked well done!

The Bad

  • The leading man did well, but I’m not sure I’d say the same about the leading lady. Lee Sinje looked pretty but her line delivery of anything that wasn’t in Cantonese or Mandarin… Sigh. It felt stiff most of the time and wasn’t convincing – you could tell she wasn’t quite comfortable with the language.
    For some reason, Malaysian productions seem to have difficulties casting ethnic Chinese actresses who can speak believable levels of English. I’m not even expecting them to speak with British or American accents – I wouldn’t want that for a story about a local woman. But we seem to get a lot of them who cannot produce a convincing impression of someone who is conversant in English, which many urban Malaysians are. They usually come across as just being very “Chinese.” (The actress in The Journey was far worse than Lee Sinje though.)
    Sylvia Chang, playing Yun Ling in the 1980s, was much better at delivering her lines.
  • The dialogue was not the best. There is a lot of dialogue in the movie and some of it didn’t feel quite natural. It didn’t hamper my experience of the movie much but there is the sense that it could have been better.
    However, perhaps it is meant to imitate the book? I haven’t read it so I can’t tell. I did read – or attempt to read – Tan Twan Eng’s other book, The Gift of Rain, and I really cannot remember whether I finished it or not because I don’t recall anything about the story, but I have the impression that I found it dull… So maaaaybe some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book and it didn’t translate well to screen? *shrugs* Would have to read the book to know.
  • The ending was a tiny bit confusing because I didn’t understand how Yun Ling arrived at the conclusion she did just by looking at the garden. My friend had to explain his understanding of it to me before I got it. So that could have been set up or explained more clearly in the movie, perhaps. haha
  • I also found the ending of Aritomo’s story unsatisfying. I assume he didn’t just walk into the jungle and get lost. It’s more likely that he’d set it up so that he could be safely smuggled back to Japan. But why did he go off like that all of a sudden? Because of the communists looking for the rumoured Japanese gold? Because he’d realised that his remaining there was a threat to his friends? I guess that makes sense, but there was just something unfinished about his story and it irked me.

The Random

  • I do really like the title. “The Garden of Evening Mists” is so poetic.
    Aritomo’s home is called 夕霧 (yuugiri) “Evening mist.” I love how that sounds.
  • I’m also rather in awe of how Abe Hiroshi manages to not look silly in those round spectacles…
  • The scenes of the Japanese war camp were uncomfortable to watch, even though they weren’t very graphic. But… It was appropriately uncomfortable. Japan has never really gotten over – and perhaps never will get over – the big issue of its armies forcing women into sexual slavery, and Garden of Evening Mists doesn’t pretend it never happened. It is painful, uncomfortable, disgusting to know that Yun Ling’s younger sister was chosen to be one of the ‘comfort women’. Again, we never see anything graphic, but we see and hear enough to know her suffering.
    What the story does evade is the level of culpability Aritomo had for Yun Ling’s suffering in the camp. It makes it clear that he wasn’t actually at the camp, but that he found the location and helped plan it as a place to hide looted gold. So, does that make him responsible for the suffering of Yun Ling, her sister, and many others? The movie seems to suggest that Aritomo himself feels some amount of responsibility for it. But the extent of his guilt, or his exact feelings about the camp and his involvement in it are left unclear. Oddly enough, I think the vagueness here works although the semi-vague ending of Aritomo’s part in the story didn’t work.
  • The movie was nominated in 9 categories at the 56th Golden Horse Awards, but only won one – Best Makeup and Costume Design. That’s not bad at all. I can appreciate its winning that category.

Got anything to add or say? :D