SINGAPORE — Malaysian actress Angelica Lee Sinje made her comeback to acting after a four-year hiatus in The Garden Of Evening Mists, a film based on a historical novel by Tan Twan Eng.
The 44-year-old, who received a Golden Horse Award for The Eye in 2002, has so far acted in films from Taiwan and Hong Kong. She shared that she hopes to expand her career by branching into English-language films, but at the same time wishes for more opportunities to act in her home country of Malaysia.
Lee was speaking to journalists at a virtual press interview on Monday (7 Sept) as she promoted The Garden Of Evening Mists for HBO Asia.
The film, co-produced by Astro Shaw and HBO Asia and directed by Tom Lin Shu-yun, had cinematic releases around Asia since November last year but is now set to premiere on TV on HBO this Sunday (13 Sept).
The bulk of the story takes place in post-World War II Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, where Lee’s character, Yun Ling, seeks the help of a Japanese imperial gardener, Aritomo (Hiroshi Abe), who lives in the misty mountains. Yun Ling wants to learn to build a Japanese garden to honour her sister, Yun Hong, who died during the war. Although Yun Hong suffered as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese occupiers, she loved the beauty of Japanese Zen gardens.
The Garden Of Evening Mists has received generally positive reviews for its sensitive portrayal of an unlikely romance between the two main characters Yun Ling and Aritomo.
Lee recounts preparing for an emotionally complex sex scene in which Yun Ling also expresses her anger towards Aritomo. The film crew didn’t dare to talk to her that day as she was so immersed in the character. “I tried my best to put myself into that emotion. I held the emotion for a whole day; I didn’t want to talk.”
Lee had taken a break from work after she gave birth to twin boys in 2016.
She told us that she is ready to return to acting, and is already involved in another project, which she can’t share details about at the moment.
Her role in Garden was Lee’s first time performing in the English language; the Chinese actress is most comfortable speaking Mandarin and Cantonese but can speak some Malay, too, as a Malaysian.
Speaking to reporters in slightly broken Malaysian-accented English and turning to her aide sometimes for help with translation, it was apparent that Lee has difficulty speaking English. But she “tried very, very hard” to perfect her English for Garden, she said.
“The movie shoot gave me a good opportunity to improve my English language. I’m looking forward to acting again in English,” said Lee.
Garden reunited Lee with her longtime friend and mentor, Taiwanese actor-director, Sylvia Chang, who plays an older version of the character Yun Ling in the film. Chang discovered Lee at an audition in Kuala Lumpur 25 years ago and started her on her career. Both actresses had previously worked together on Chang’s films, Princess D (2002), 20 30 40 (2004), and Murmur Of The Hearts (2015).
Lee said director Lin asked her to make audio recordings of Chang’s lines for Chang to listen to so that the older actress could mimic Lee’s character’s Malaysian-British accent.
As she enters a new phase of her career, Lee said she would choose her projects carefully. “I have my own standards and requirements for the script. I will only accept a project, a movie that really touches me,” Lee said.
Lee has projects outside of her acting work that is meaningful to her too; she manages a charity for underprivileged children, the Little Yellow Flower Education Foundation, which she founded with her friends Charlie Young, Gigi Leung and Valen Hsu. During Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown, the foundation raised funds to provide personal protective equipment for hospitals, and supplied food to more than 700 families, said Lee.
Lee also makes acrylic paintings. She had planned to exhibit her artwork this year, but the pandemic has caused her to postpone the exhibition to next year.
When asked how she was dealing with the lockdown, or Movement Control Order (MCO) as it is known in Malaysia, Lee said practising social isolation was not difficult for her. “I’ve practised meditation for more than ten years. Every year, at least once, I will attend meditation camps and isolate myself for, like seven to ten days. No handphone or computer, just me and myself, that's all.”
“The MCO, to me, is kind of (like) another meditation camp, but at the same time, I have to take care of my family to make sure that they’re safe and healthy. I spent a lot of time with my children. I cooked good food for them,” Lee added.
With Malaysia having relaxed lockdown restrictions, Lee has even taken the opportunity to take an extended vacation with her family. She lives in Kuala Lumpur but has recently holidayed in Terengganu and Langkawi. “Last weekend, I brought my children to Langkawi. We spent four days and three nights at the Four Seasons Hotel. I swam every day and rode bicycles. We had a very good time there. I think Malaysia is such a good place, because almost every weekend, you will see me on the mountain or in the sea. With one hour’s drive, we can reach the mountain already.”
The Garden Of Evening Mists will premiere on HBO GO and HBO this Sunday (13 September) at 10pm.