For some inexplicable reason, Tan Twan Eng is drawn to the past and it is something that manifests through his writing.
“I don’t know why,” he says. “For some reason I have only been writing books set in the past. It wasn’t intentional. I guess a lot of the things that I am interested in are set in the past. I like to tell story about how the past affects us today.”
It is a theme that is heavily explored in his second book The Garden of Evening Mists, published in 2012, now adapted into a film starring Malaysian actress Lee Sinje and Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe.
In it the protagonist Yun Ling (played by Lee) escapes the Japanese occupation scarred by all that she had experienced as a prisoner of war. To come to terms with the past, she heads to Cameron Highlands in the midst of the post war Malayan Emergency to seek the help of Japanese gardener Arimoto to build a Japanese garden as an ode to her sister who didn’t survive the war.
Immersed in the philosophy that is at the centre of Japanese gardens, Yun Ling slowly comes to terms with her past.
“I wanted to write a good story that would appeal to not just Malaysian readers but around the world as well,” he explains. “It is about how survivors cope with what they have gone through.”
Described as “a strong, quiet novel” by The New York Times, the second novel builds on a theme that was first explored in Tan’s first book The Gift of Rain (2007), set in the years before and during the war and told from the point of view of a male protagonist.
“This (The Garden of Evening Mists) is told from a woman’s perspective,” says the writer. “It deals with grieving, memories that you can’t and refuse to let go off. It deals with how you reconcile yourself with these painful yet enriching memories that all of us have.”
The book received critical acclaim, making the Booker Prize shortlist in 2012. In 2013, it also won the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
“It was very hard,” he says, reflecting on the process. “For the longest time I couldn’t get the structure to work. The book has got three different timelines and all these flashbacks. It took around 15 rewrites to get a structure that was coherent for the reader.”
Flashbacks, though difficult to execute, is something the author enjoys including in his books.
“It is fascinating to compare the older person and the younger self and see how they arrive at the present personality.”
At the outset, it may appear to be a complex tale but upon further reading, some may perceive to be a story of how love can attempt to solve wounds. The latter is a more likely conclusion if you have seen the movie rather than read the book.
“The book is complex,” says Lee in her interview with Prestige. “It covers many things but the movie it is about a true love that breaks through the hatred.”
The role of Yun Ling is the first that Lee has taken following a four year hiatus after having her kids. Her first reading of the script, left her hesitant. There were many questions, she says, that were unanswered. It was only after she read the book that she felt that the role was right for her.
It was a challenge, she admits. Delving into Yun Ling took a lot from her emotionally and physically. But it seems that it was worth it. Lee received a best leading actress nomination at the recent Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan.
“She gave an incredible performance,” says Tan.
The film, he says, has generated a lot of positive reviews internationally and Tan hopes that it attract the same buzz here. It is Malaysian but Tan says it must be acknowledge for its international cast and crew which include Taiwanese director Tom Lin and cinematographer Kartik Vijay from India.
“The diversity of this film is remarkable because it was so organic,” he says. “It was about putting the best and most suitable people together. Tom, the director, said that at one stage there were eight languages being spoken on set.”
Tan admits that he was initially quite nervous at how the movie would turn out. He was, however, quickly converted. From the first frame, he was struck by how beautiful the film is.
“I cried at the end,” he says, adding that all Malaysians should watch it “It was very well made. It is an incredibly beautiful piece of art.
The Garden of Evening Mists, produced by Astro Shaw and HBO Asia, will be released in cinemas from January 16 onwards.