We had the opportunity to interview our very own Malaysian actress Lee Sinje, best known for having been the lead actress in 2002’s Hong Kong horror movie The Eye. She has had an illustrious career, but most recently, she played the lead role of Teoh Yun Ling in HBO Asia’s The Garden Of Evening Mists.
The movie is set in Malaysia and it was even filmed in Cameron Highlands, Pahang. The main character is a Malaysian-Chinese who endured the atrocities of the Japanese occupation, and the story is mostly about the relationship between her and a mysterious Japanese gardener after the war has ended.
During the interview, she spoke about everything from how she prepared for her emotionally-taxing role, whether she would be willing to take on a Malay-speaking role, who her favourite local actor is, what the future holds for her, and more.
The Garden Of Evening Mists will premiere on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Channel 411 HD) on 13 September at 10pm GMT+8.
Here’s what she had to say to the questions we asked:
Q: How did you prepare for the role of Teoh Yun Ling?
A: I actually spent a long time to prepare for this role. Firstly, because this is my first English-speaking movie, I didn’t have the confidence to speak very fluently when I first accepted the role. In the very beginning, I practised my dialogue with a British coach. Our Australian costume design team and I spent a lot of time moulding Yun-Ling because this is a historical movie that I never experienced myself.
I think that the costume and the look is really an important tool for me to go into the role and role of Yun Ling. At the same time, I also watched some documentaries about the second World War and comfort women. I spent as much as I could to put myself into Yun Ling’s shoes and to really become her.
Q: How challenging was it to portray Yun Ling?
A: It was very difficult because the Yun Ling in the novel is already well-known to many people. Readers who have read the novel will see my performance and I think they will agree with my performance of Yun Ling. They will surely compare me with the Yun Ling in the novel because this is a very powerful story and a very powerful character.
It was a lot of pressure for myself. I wasn’t sure that I could a lot of the scenes and reach the emotion. There’s this bath sex scene in the movie that I really expressed my anger towards Aritomo. We shot the scene at night, but no one dared to talk to me during the day because I was so serious.
I tried my best to really put myself into an emotional state. When it came time to act out the scene, it was amazing. I never experienced it before, it’s like I totally forgot what I was doing. I cannot really remember what I’m doing when I’m acting; the emotion will just flow. It’s a very big impact for me on my acting.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced while filming the movie?
A: For me, the most challenging part was to ensure that both of my physical and emotional energy can handle the weight of the story and the shooting schedule. We shot the entire movie within two months and we had a very tight schedule, especially for Yun Ling.
We also had a lot of heavy scenes that I needed to recover from. Sometimes, after those scenes, I would feel exhausted, but still, I needed to carry on. I’m not sure that I could have handled it if shooting went on any longer.
The Garden Of Evening Mists was also the first movie I filmed after delivering my twins, so I think motherhood has trained me for that.
Q: Did you ever have people around you that were affected by the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Malayan Occupation, especially the ones involving comfort women?
A: When I was young, I heard some stories about the war from my grandmother, but I didn’t hear anything about comfort women in Malaysia. Only after receiving my script, I studied history and discovered about comfort women. I was so shocked.
In the movie, you can see how both Yun Ling and Aritomo (played by Hiroshi Abe) are victims of the war, so although I wasn’t born during the war, I felt sad watching the documentaries about the war. In one of the documentaries, a former comfort woman was so distraught that she was speechless. That scene really touched me, as I felt the pain and anger inside her after all these years.
That scene really impacted me and it gave me insight into the plight of the comfort women during the war.
Q: Which country has the better food, Taiwan or Malaysia?
A: Wah, cannot compare like that lah. The best is surely food from my grandmother, and with love from my mother’s food. I enjoy both Taiwanese and Malaysian food.
Q: This is your first Malaysian movie in a while. How was your experience shooting the movie in Cameron Highlands?
A: I feel honoured to be a part of The Garden Of Evening Mists because it is a very powerful story adapted from our Malaysian novel. This is the very first time that I speak completely in English when acting in a movie and it was such a big challenge for me. At the same time, it’s a very good opportunity to train me and to let the audience know that I can act in English.
As an actress, I think that language is very important. If I can speak more languages, I can act as different characters. I feel very happy that I had this opportunity to work with such an international team. I learned a lot from that and we had a very good time during the shooting.
I think that The Garden Of Evening Mists is the happiest memory in my acting career. I’m also very happy that most of the scenes were shot in Malaysian nature. Malaysia (and Cameron Highlands) is so beautiful. I would wake up, see the mountains, go “wow!”, and wish I could stay here forever.
Q: Did you talk about characterization with Sylvia Chang (who plays the older version of protagonist Yun Ling in the movie)?
A: You know, a lot of people ask us, like what kind of preparations that both of us have done and all that, but honestly, we didn’t really communicate about the character. It’s just the director asking me to record and speak all of Sylvia’s parts because Sylvia needed to practice speaking in my Malaysian English accent.
So, I recorded her dialogue, and the director would sent Sylvia footage of me and Abe. That’s all. The audiences think that we are so alike, our similarities not only comes from our preparation, but we have known each other for more than 20 years. Sylvia Chang is the first person to discover me in Malaysia when I was in my last year of high school.
Our relationship was so close that our friends always mentioned how we talked and looked so alike. We didn’t even realize it, until we watched the movie ourselves.
Q: Did you read the book before accepting the role?
A: Sure. Before I accepted the role, I had already finished the novel because I initially received the invitation to play Yun Ling from Astro Shaw. They sent me the script, and after finishing reading the script, I spent another month finishing the novel.
Then, I wrote down the touching parts that I felt from reading the novel that I didn’t feel from the script. I did a lot of homework before I even met the director. When I finally met him, I had a hundred questions to discuss with him.
I told him my feelings and my thoughts about the difference between the book and the script, and I suggested additional content and scenes from the novel to be added into the script. He agreed with that and we had a really smooth discussion. I really did read the whole novel.
Q: How have you been coping with social isolation during the MCO?
A: First, I accepted it. You have to accept it, yeah. Actually, for me, it wasn’t very difficult because I’ve been practising meditation for more than 10 years, so once every year I would attend an isolation camp and isolate myself for like seven to ten days without handphones or computers.
Just me and myself, so I’ve gotten used to that situation so, during MCO, it was kind of like another meditation camp for me. But I also have to take care of my family and keep them healthy and safe. I spent a lot of time with my children, and I cook for them. I stayed at home and got really close with my children for 24 hours.
I didn’t have to deal with so many complicated stuff so I could also paint. I have a story in my mind that I would like to develop into a script in the future. There are so many things you can do at home, and I raised more than RM500,000 for my charity foundation. We worked together with a lot of people and I received a lot of positive energy during the MCO.
Q: Would you ever be willing to take on a Malay-speaking role in the future?
A: I would; I like challenges. I think I would accept any type of character that are interesting no matter what language it is, but the production team need to give me enough time to do the preparation.
I can speak Malay; not very good but if you give me some time to practise, I believe I can make it. I really hope that I have more opportunities to work with Malaysian productions and especially different actors. I know there are so many good Malaysian actors and actresses, like my favourite actor, Bront Palarae.
I love him so much, I love his performance so much. I hope maybe one day that we could act together.
Q: What was your favourite part in the original novel?
A: If you’ve watched The Garden Of Evening Mists, you’ll remember a scene where Aritomo and Yun Ling have a talk on the mountain about her past and the Japanese war camp. Actually, in the beginning, in the script, the way that Yun Ling expressed her past was in a different way.
After reading the novel, I found that the most catching parts were when Aritomo brought Yun Ling into the mountain and he asks about her past. I felt very touching because when Aritomo decided to ask about her experience, it’s like he wants to take the weight off her life.
When I read the novel, I felt that was when she fell in love with Aritomo, because that’s when she felt love and care from him, and how Aritomo tried to treat her. Aritomo used his wisdom to slowly lift Yun Ling from her pain. I shared this with the director and he added this part of the novel into the movie.
Q: Is gardening something that you do at home as well?
A: It’s so interesting. After the movie, I gained an interest in gardening, and now I have a small Yugiri garden. After the movie released in Malaysian cinemas earlier this year, I had so much time during the MCO and I started to draw in my garden. Slowly, I spent a lot of time on gardening. I find that love in gardening transformed my life.
Q: What’s the next for you in the near future? Any projects?
A: I think The Garden Of Evening Mists movie is a new start for me after being a mother. From that point, I have already started my work and I’m looking for another exciting movie project because I have my own standard requirement for the script. I think I will only accept the movie and script that has touched me.
There is already another movie on the horizon, but I can’t reveal anything about it yet.
At the same time, I have been running my own charity foundation in Malaysia for ten years. We help underprivileged children and during the MCO, we have raised funds and purchased supplies for hospitals and help supply food for more than 700 families.
I’m also supposed to hold my art exhibition this year, but I had to postpone it to next year due to the MCO, so I’m also busy preparing my artwork.
Q: Do you have any plans for the holidays?
A: I already have, in Langkawi. (laughs)
I’m currently in KL, but I brought my children to Langkawi last week. We spent four days and three nights there at the Four Seasons hotel. I swam every day and rode the bicycle. I think Malaysia is such a good place because almost every weekend, you will see me either on the mountain or in the sea.
The mountain is only an hours drive away. I also went to Terengganu before the Langkawi trip. I was quite busy travelling. I have been living in Malaysia again for the past 10 years, and I live in KL now.