Study of post-war trauma

Film fans here will recognise Japanese actor Hiroshi Abe from his roles in movies by renowned film-maker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

The actor, 56, has appeared in Kore-eda’s family dramas: Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), and After The Storm (2016).

Kore-eda’s films typically call for longer takes and more naturalistic acting compared with other projects Abe has done, which range from comedies to crime thrillers.

Speaking to Asian journalists at a virtual press conference last Friday, Abe reveals the paradox behind Kore-eda’s trademark naturalism: It is achieved only after many rehearsals, up to 30 of them.

During these sessions, the writer-director works with the actors to iron out the final dialogue.

“He keeps adjusting the script as we get closer to the shoot date, so that by the time we get to the set, the actors have adjusted and it all becomes natural,” Abe says through a translator.

The actor can now be seen in the drama, The Garden Of Evening Mists, which is available on HBO Go now and will be broadcast on HBO from Sept 27.

The movie is adapted from the 2012 novel of the same name by Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Man Asian Literary Prize.

In the film, directed by Taiwanese director Tom Lin, Abe is Aritomo, a mysterious Japanese expatriate living in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

Through him, the main character Yun Ling – played as a young woman by Malaysian actress Lee Sinje and in middle age by Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang – comes to terms with the trauma she suffered during World War II when the British colony of Malaya came under Japanese occupation.

Unlike Japanese actors who appear regularly in international productions, such as Ken Watanabe, Abe is new to such work.

He joined the film because director Lin had seen his work and approached him, he says.

For many in parts of Asia that came under Japanese Occupation or attack during World War II, the period remains a sensitive and controversial topic – especially when it comes to the issue of comfort women, the name given to local women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military.

It is a subject that forms a crucial plot point in the book and film.

Abe says he was drawn to the project because, unlike other stories about the war – which often feature conflict between “good guys and bad guys” – the film takes the victims’ point of view and explores how they work through their suffering.

“It shows people affected by the war in a very direct way. Both Yun Ling and Aritomo were hurt by the war,” he says.

Abe adds that the film is a love story, a topic that “everyone in the world can understand and through it, I hope people can learn to be more peaceful”.

That is not to say the film, which is rated M18, does not have its torrid moments.

In one scene, which takes place in a bath, Yun Ling and Aritomo become lovers. This marks a transition for Yun Ling, after which she accepts her feelings for Aritomo and overcomes her antipathy towards the Japanese.

It was a scene that actress Lee faced with some trepidation, says Abe. “Before the shoot, she said she… wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the scene.

“All I could do was support her character and let my character take the pain that she was feeling.”

  • The Garden Of Evening Mists (M18, 115 minutes) is available on the HBO Go streaming app and will be broadcast on the HBO channel on Sept 27, at 10.25am.