It took her 25 years and more than 22 films, but she's finally come home.
‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ lead actress Lee Sinje said she was excited when offered the role as she finally got to play a Malaysian character in a story set in the country.
"I'm Malaysian, but my career started in Taiwan, and most of my work has been overseas. I hope that I have more opportunities to act in Malaysian films and Malaysian characters that I'm most familiar with," she said.
Sinje added that after receiving the script for the movie, she spent about a month exploring the novel of the same title.
A Malaysian story
“I was so touched by the story and the character Yun Ling. I think Tan Twan Eng has written a very beautiful and deeply moving story about Malaysia.
“Yun Ling is a strong and determined woman who has gone through a lot in life. I can sense it’s going to be a whole new experience and challenge for me. So I decided to accept the role,” she said.
The offer to play the role came as a refreshing change for the actress who’s been typecast as a ‘horror movie star’, after she won the Best Actress award at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards in 2002.
“Honestly, when I won best actress for 'The Eye', 17 years ago, I think most of the audience and filmmakers had stereotype me as an actress who stars in horror roles. At some point, I started to feel I just wanted to get away from scary movies,” she said.
Sinje started to decline offers to act in horror movies and take up more varied roles to further hone her skills as an actor.
Looking at her performance in ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’, which also gained her a nomination for the best actress category at the recent Golden Horse Awards, she made the right decision.
Sinje was not the only person from the movie’s production to receive a nomination at the award. The movie managed to garner nine nominations, a first Malaysian production to do so, and walked away with the award for 'Best Makeup and Costume Design'.
The actress said that one of the biggest challenges for her in playing Yun Ling’s character was the language.
“This is the first time I’m acting in English, which I think I’m not very good at. I was worried that I cannot express myself fully during the shoot and it will affect my acting. So I spent a lot of time and worked really hard with my English coach,” she said.
She added that she also found that keeping her energy high, both physically and mentally, when playing the role was not easy as she had to immerse herself in the character of Yun Ling, who went through the horrors of war.
Despite the challenges, Sinje enjoyed being a part of ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ as it gave her the chance to work with a group of very talented people from several countries.
“It wasn’t easy as we all spoke different languages and come from different backgrounds. But we learned from each other and we made it in the end,” she said.
To Sinje, the crux of the movie is the power of true love. Despite having gone through a traumatic time at the Japanese labour camp, Yun Ling manages to find love with a Japanese man.
Love blossomed despite her hatred for the Japanese soldiers who tortured her and indirectly caused the death of her sister at a concentration camp.
“I think true love can really break through hatred. The negative of humanity,” Sinje said.
Written by Malaysian Tan Twang Eng, the original novel, which the movie is based on, won several international awards with the author even being the first Malaysian to win the coveted 'Man Asian Literary Prize'.
The movie version, meanwhile, is presented by Astro Shaw and HBO Asia, with support from the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS), in association with CJ Entertainment.
The film has an international production team from Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Australia and UK working to bring together this celebrated novel to the silver screen.
This global production is helmed by award-winning Taiwanese director Tom Shu-Yu Lin and adapted by Scottish BAFTA-winning screenwriter Richard Smith.
It also boasts a star-studded international cast including Sinje Lee ('The Eye'), Hiroshi Abe ('After The Storm'), Sylvia Chang ('Love Education'), David Oakes ('Cold Skin'), Julian Sands ('The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo') and John Hannah ('The Mummy').
The film tells the story of Teoh Yun Ling who, embittered from atrocities of World War II in Malaya, seeks solace in the rolling hills of Cameron Highlands.
There, in her quest to build a garden in homage of her late sister, she embarks on a forbidden love affair with the mysterious gardener, Nakamura Aritomo (played by Hiroshi Abe).
If you want to know what happens next, catch ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ in cinemas near you beginning 16 January 2020!