After a four-year hiatus, Lee Sinje has finally made her comeback to the silver screen with The Garden of Evening Mists. The Kedah-born actress first rose to prominence after starring in 2002’s The Eye, which bagged her multiple Best Actress wins at the Golden Horse Awards, Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Bauhinia Awards.
Lee’s comeback is all the more significant considering that the film marks the renowned actress’ debut in a Malaysian production (produced by Astro Shaw and HBO Asia in association with CJ Entertainment). Nominated for nine Golden Horse Awards, The Garden of Evening Mists received widespread critical acclaim, with critics praising Lee for her incredible performance as Teoh Yun Ling.
Adapted from the award-winning historical novel of the same title by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng. The Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of a lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeking solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya. In hopes that she can build a garden in homage of her beloved sister, Yun Ling discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
In conjunction with the film’s international release on HBO GO and HBO, we at The Cultured got to catch up with the lovely actress. In this interview, Lee talks about how she prepared for the portrayal of Yun Ling, the biggest challenge she faced during filming, her preference between Malaysian and Taiwanese food, and more.
How challenging was it to portray Yun Ling?
It was difficult because Yun Ling is already well-known to many people considering the success of the novel. In my opinion, I believe the readers would approve my take on the character. Surely, fans of the book will undoubtedly compare my portrayal of the character to the novel’s given how emotional resonating the original work is.
There was a lot of intensity that went into my preparation of playing Yun Ling. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether I could deliver. There was a sex scene in the film, and because of the sheer intensity of the scene, I had to muster a lot of anger towards Aritomo (potrayed by Hiroshi Abe). We shot that scene at night, and the crew was so afraid of engaging with me because of how immersed I was in the role.
I had a surreal experience when filming The Garden of Evening Mists. At a point, I forgot that I was acting, and the emotions flowed naturally, which has never happened before.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while filming the movie?
For me, the biggest challenge was ensuring that I have what it takes to deliver, both physically and emotionally. We shot the entire film within two months and we had an extremely tight schedule, especially for the character of Yun Ling.
There were many physically and emotionally taxing scenes that I needed to recover from. At times, I would be exhausted during filming. In retrospect, I’m not certain whether I could have handle it if the shooting went on longer than it did. The Garden Of Evening Mists is also the first movie I filmed after delivering my twins, so I think motherhood has trained me to be tough.
You have an illustrious career in Taiwan, The Garden of the Evening Mists brought you back home to Malaysia. Settle a debate for us, which country has the better food?
You can’t compare the two! [Laughs] My grandmother’s cooking is, hands down, the best food I have ever eaten. It’s made with love, and nothing can beat that. [Laughs] My mom’s as well! In all honesty though, I enjoy both Taiwanese and Malaysian food. They’re great!
How did you deal with social isolation during the Movement Control Order (MCO)?
I accepted it. It wasn’t very difficult for me because I’ve been practising meditation for over a decade. Once a year, I’d attend an isolation camp and isolate myself for a good seven to ten days without any devices.
During the MCO, it was as if I was attending another meditation camp. This time around, however, there’s the additional task of taking care of my family and keeping them safe and healthy. I spent a lot of time with my children, and I cook for them. It was very intimate for us as a family.
Because of the isolation, I was able to focus on many things that I would not be able to otherwise. I picked up the brush and started painting again. There was even a story that popped into my mind, and I would love to develop it into a script in the future. There are so many things you can do at home. During the MCO, we were able to raise 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. It’s fantastic.
What’s next for you in the future?
The Garden Of Evening Mists marks a new beginning for me. From that point on, I have already started working and was looking towards the next exciting project. I have my own requirement when it comes to the projects I take on. I would only accept the project if it’s something I feel connected to on an emotional level. Actually, there is something on the horizon, but I can’t tell you about that yet! [Laughs]