The Taiwan-based Malaysian actress shares on her lead role in Astro Shaw and HBO Asia's film adaptation of Tan Twan Eng’s acclaimed novel, as well as finding fulfilment in art and helping others

After a four-year hiatus from the silver screen, singer and actress Lee Sinje’s comeback to film in 2019 sparked a buzz amongst fans of Asian cinema.

When news of a film adaptation of Tan Twan Eng’s critically-acclaimed novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, broke, fans were delighted to learn that Lee Sinje was cast as the lead actress, taking on the role of Teoh Yun Ling, a woman who seeks solace in the hills of Cameron Highlands to recover from the atrocities she witnessed during World War II in Malaya.  

Fast forward to the end of 2019, and the film has already garnered 9 nominations (including Best Leading Actress for Sinje) at the 56th Golden Horse Awards in Taipei.

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Produced by Astro Shaw and HBO Asia, The Garden Of Evening Mists premiered at the 24th Busan International Film Festival in October; the film will make its debut in Malaysian cinemas in January 2020.    

We recently caught up with this talented actress and mother of two before the Golden Horse Awards for a chat on the movie as well as she finds happiness and fulfilment in helping others.  

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Above Photo: Astro Shaw

This is your first film in 4 years. What inspired your return to acting?

When I was pregnant with my twin boys 4 years ago, I realised I wanted to spend time with them when they were still young and needed me most. Today, as I step into my 40s, it is a really important new stage in my life. I had taken the opportunity to wait for a really good script and role to come along, good enough for me to return to acting. When I received the script for The Garden Of Evening Mists, I knew instantly it was the right project for me.

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How did it feel to play the leading role in The Garden Of Evening Mists?

Although I’m Malaysian, I started my career in Taiwan and have subsequently acted in mostly Hong Kong and Taiwanese films. Throughout the 20 years of my career, I worked mostly with foreign film productions all the while longing for an opportunity to be part of a Malaysian production. I was so excited to be able to head back to my homeland to work on this film.

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Above Hiroshi Abe and Sinje in a scene from Garden of Evening Mists (Photo: Astro Shaw)

How did you land the part?

Two years ago, I met Astro Shaw at an event. They approached me about the project and sent me the script shortly after that. Once I read the script and Tan Twan Eng’s novel, I met with director Tom Lin. My casting was confirmed around the same time as my co-star Hiroshi Abe, who plays the Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo in the film.  

What was it about the script that resonated with you?

It told the story of a young woman who went through so much hardship in her life during World War II and the effects it has on her after the war. I was truly touched by love story between Yun Ling and Aritomo and how they overcame the hatred between their 2 countries.

Also, the journey of how Yun Ling survived the horror of Japanese labour camp and eventually experienced some form of relief in later years truly moved me. 

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Above The film marks Sinje's return to acting after 4 years (Photo: Astro Shaw)

How did you prepare for the role?

I watched many documentaries on WWII and the Malayan Emergency– these periods were essentially the backdrop of Yun Lin’s life. I was not well-versed with these details of our history so I wanted to understand the feeling of helplessness and pain of the people then, and tried to understand their anger and regrets after the war.

Tell us about your recent love of painting and art.

It’s not that recent - I started painting back in my early 20s, when my beloved grandmother passed away. I didn’t know how to accept that she was gone; the pain I felt just couldn’t be expressed in words. Around that time, I had watched a French film called Malena es un nombre de tango, about a female painter who explores life and relationships in the ever-changing world.

I was inspired to paint after watching that. To me, painting is a way to express the inner feelings which I find too difficult to share with others.

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Your work was recently featured at Art Expo 2019.

Yes, this year I collaborated with Art Expo to exhibit 2 big paintings. It served as a warm up to my exhibition next year. I hope you guys will love what I’ve got in store for 2020.

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Above "When I received the script of The Garden of Evening Mists, I knew it was the right project for me and I jumped back on the chance to return to the silver screen," -- Lee Sinje. (Photo: Astro Shaw)

What are you most grateful for right now?

Looking back at the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to work on meaningful projects that I love. I’m running an NGO, Little Yellow Flower, which helps provide educational support for children from impoverished homes. I paint and also spend quality time with my twin boys. If I can do all these things again next year, I’ll be truly happy.  

Any other goals and plans for the new year?

I’m planning on hosting my very own art exhibition, and I’ll also hold a big charity dinner for my NGO. I can only hope I also have the chance to come across another great acting gig like The Garden Of Evening Mists.

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