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[InC-terview] BananaMana on 'Jimami Tofu', Okinawa, and Beyond

By Freddy  /  28 Dec 2016 (Wednesday)

Image credit: BananaMana Films

BananaMana Films is a local production company who has created several drama series, such as ‘What Do Men Want’ on Channel 5 and the award-winning ‘Perfect Girlfriend’ on Netflix. We talk to the two founders, Jason Chan and Christian Lee, about their first feature film, ‘Jimami Tofu’, about the creation process and their future plans.

‘Jimami Tofu’ is love story between a Singaporean chef who finds himself in Okinawa, begging an old chef to teach him traditional Okinawan food, and a top Japanese food critic who travels to Singapore to discover Southeast Asian cuisine.

InCinemas: About this movie, I would like to ask why did you choose Japan and specifically Okinawa?
Jason: It was always our dream, actually, to film in Japan. We just love Japan because of its culture, it’s beauty. Everything about it I think is very, for lack of a better word, cinematic. It’s beautiful to shoot. We would walk around these markets and often go off to the Japan booth and see if we could, you know, have some opportunity to do a co-production.

Finally, last year, when we first met with the Okinawan film office. Last year they met with us and they hear an ATF and two weeks later they invited us to Okinawa to see if we could film something there. They’d seen kind of three of our previous works and then they said, “Well, let us take you around and show you Okinawa and see if you wanna make part of your project there. Your next project.”

So we spent about five days being driven around. It was a wonderful experience, just looking at the beauty of Okinawa itself. But we sort of said to our fixer at the time, “Well, we really wanna get deeper into Okinawan culture and food, you know. Can you show us some traditional Okinawan food?” And she said, “Really? You wanna see some traditional Okinawan food?” “Yeah, I wanna see the villages; I wanna see how the people here sort of live.” And so she showed us some of this history. The castles, the medieval castles, the Ryukyu Dynasty, and then of course the Ryukyu traditional food. And we really fell in love with that.

And then at the end when they said, “Hey, any ideas about what you would like to film here?” We said, “Yeah, absolutely. We would like to make a love story around Okinawan food based on two cultures, you know. A Southeast Asian and a Japanese woman and a few Japanese characters, based around the Ryukyu culture.

Image credit: BananaMana Films

InCinemas: Why a love story?
Jason: Well, you know, their KPI was to attract Southeast Asians and Singaporeans to go to Okinawa. And we said, “You know, of course, there’s no better way to do that than to get people emotionally attracted to a place. Emotionally connected. And we love… we are suckers for love stories. (Christian laughs) Like, we’re sentimental. So we thought, let’s make a love story. It’s something that we wanna do, we love to do. And let’s get people to fall in love with the place, the food, the culture, and the characters.

Image credit: BananaMana Films

InCinemas:  Besides the language barrier, what are the challenges filming in Okinawa and also finding the Japanese actors and actresses to collaborate with?
Jason: That was biggest challenge, you know. We have to cast Japanese actors who can speak English. So we had a global call online and it was the first time we did that, where we just sent out an invite to everyone and then people sort of sent it around and became a little bit viral. All these people were sending auditions in via Youtube or Vimeo, giving us links. And then we had Skype callbacks. So we had about, you know, we narrowed it down. Narrowed it down to about 150 girls auditioning at the first time, you know. And then we had Skype auditions back and forth with people from Germany, UK, Hollywood, Australia. There were all these people and it was a wonderful experience where I think technology sort of merge with that and we could actually utilise technology to reach so many people.

And we found a lot of fantastic actors around the world because of course, our mission statement is “Asian stories in English.” Suddenly we found so many Asian actors, great Asian actors who can speak, of course, fluent English. And so we may not have used them for this production but we’ll certainly use them later. But we did, in fact, find a couple of actors first which you saw in the promo but actually we recast, and we recast again because it didn’t quite fit the character.

So we ended up, again, sort of asking people, talking to people, and meeting other actresses. So we have Mari Yamamoto from Tokyo, and then Rino Nakasone, who is actually a very famous dancer and choreographer. She is one of the top choreographers in the world now. She has danced with Janet Jackson, Gwen Stefani, all these people. She’s one of the biggest choreographers in Korea now. And she is making a transition into acting, and so we were introduced by another Tokyo-based actor and we met her and we thought, “You know, she’s a dancer who wants to make a change and we’re not sure she can act.” But when we auditioner her we were blown away. She was a really good actress. And then we just finished production with her. We were really really impressed because she is really a performer and, you know, for someone who has never taken many acting classes, she just can nail it. She was fantastic.

Christian: The other challenge, I’ll just have to say, with the Japanese co-production, is everything costs so much. And they’re very used to the traditional way of doing production, which for us, we’re kind of like disruptors, DIY, guerilla style, let’s do… let’s use very little but produce very big results. So they listed out the budget and then everyone in the production team was like “We’re used to doing our projects with four people, two of us acting and distributing globally.” So it took a while to explain where we came from, teach our workflows, saying that, “With leveraging technology, you don’t need as many people and don’t need as much resources spent.” So we found sort of a compromise in that.

Jason: Yeah, and I think some of them were fascinated. Some of them didn’t quite trust us at first but then after a while, got fascinated. “How are they doing it? With hardly any lights, with no generator.” We would turn up and there’d be like 30 crew then I’m like, “What would we do with all these people?” We felt really bad that we weren’t carrying bags and lifting sandbags and stuff. We would go then they’ll go “No no no no no, we’ll do it.” Like, we’re not used to this. We normally carry the bags home. We normally drive the cars.

Christian: We had a huge diffusion scrim. I thought, “Oh, that would be useful.” We didn’t use it at all.

Jason: We hired one light for for the entire production. One light. They said, “We’ve got the budget to hire some stuff.” We said, “Okay, we’ll get a couple of scrims, three C-stands, we’ll have one light.” They said, “One light? That’s all you want?” We said, “The rest we have. We have LED panels, we have batteries.” I said one light. We used it once in the entire production. It just became so slow to set it up, like, we gotta have a stand then we gotta plug in the power, and it was like “Forget the light, just use our LEDs,” you know.

So the differences were not only cultural. It was also the culture of traditional crew and the non-traditional crew coming in and going “We have a camera which can see in the dark, so we don’t actually need light.” I just need an LED panel, bounce it off a wall. And I think what was interesting is that we got some very great images out of that and people now are starting to turn around and go, “Oh, I get it. I see what you’re doing, you know. You’re just leveraging technology to create something with much much smaller footprint everywhere you go.”

Image credit: BananaMana Films

InCinemas: So do you think this is the path for many aspiring filmmakers to follow?
Jason: We think so. So Sony really has jumped on the bandwagon and said to us, “We want you next year to… we want to take you around to six Southeast Asian countries to talk about how you just did this.” We use their cameras. They’re very excited that we’re using their cameras to make a feature film in 4k. But we told them, “Look, guys. We wouldn’t use your product if it didn’t help us. Like, your cameras can see in the dark so suddenly we can shoot at four o’clock in Okinawa.” It was almost dark and the actors kept looking around going “Where are the lights? I don’t get it. How are they shooting this?” But you know, because of that we were able to keep shooting into the night. Like even at six o’clock we can keep shooting and we can make a day with a tiny little LED panel.

And I think not only is it a great path to follow, it’s a necessity now. Because now with distribution getting smaller and smaller in terms of the pie that you get from what you sell, you’re selling to online channels, you know. Your budget has to shrink. It is already, you know. So you have to be a lot smarter about how you produce. And we feel that old method of one-million-dollar movie is just gonna get harder and harder to keep doing. Making movies that are two hundred thousand, one hundred and fifty thousand, or even sixty thousand, you know, to get in and just go. Get a couple of cameras, you know, we don’t need ten people to operate three cameras. We don’t need a ton of lights. The empowering thing is that it allows… We’ve hired a lot of actors. I think we have 30 actors on this film, a lot of local actors in Okinawa, some Singaporean actors and we’re putting a lot of creative people to work rather than a lot of just technical people carrying sandbags, you know. We feel that it’s where we should be going, that we’re actually funneling the money into the creatives and the people who are developing the software. You know, the writing, the art direction, all those people are necessary people. So we said, “Yeah, the people who we need: art directors, food director, food stylist.”

Christian: But with that said, it is the future for aspiring filmmakers because the playing field is level now. So just going back to our previous project, “Perfect Girl”, was made for $1,000 with four of us, two of us acting. I think we’ve said that before. But for it to go on to Netflix and to get a traction. We’re kind of the case study that said, yes, aspiring filmmakers can hold their money together and it’s very inexpensive. What they have to do is get their ideas out. Get the software out. And if they have the talent there, they absolutely can go and get the distribution. Everything can fall in place. So that’s really important and we hope... we always want to be inspiration to others.

Image credit: BananaMana Films

InCinemas: Apart from being a love story, how do you think this film would appeal to Singapore audience?
Jason: Food and Okinawa. Firstly, we think the food is gonna be really attractive to Singaporeans. We were really drawn to the food. But it has to be and you have to go and try the Ryukyu dynastic food. It’s really… It’s a perfect mix of like Southeast Asian spices but Japanese presentation. So it just looks beautiful and then you eat and you go, “Wait a minute. This is belly pork. Wait a minute, this is Southeast Asian spices. There’s cumin, there’s cinnamon, there’s ginger. All this. And then they put chili in awamori and then use that in a ramyeon and like “This is really interesting.” And I think Singaporeans will connect with it straight away through the food. And they’ll go on try them. But apart from that, of course Okinawa is beautiful. It’s like, I think it’s better than Hawaii. You know, so picturesque.

Christian: I’ll give you one more, why Singaporeans would connect. Because the magical dish that makes the Japanese girl truly truly fall in love with the Singaporean chef is char kway teow. She has it in Tokyo; she has it in Singapore; it’s a featured dish. I think we’re all proud that the dish is in the movie.

Jason: And at the end of the day, it’s romance. It’s a love story. It’s a story about coming home. It’s about a Japanese girl born in Okinawa who leaves and goes to Tokyo and never returns until her father dies. Her father happens to be the famous chef in Okinawa. So she has a homecoming. And it’s really, at the heart of it, it’s about coming home. And that’s what we felt the food was like. When we ate it, it was like really home-cooked food. It was just very heartwarming and so I think the story is really about that.

Image credit: BananaMana Films

InCinemas: Can you share any future plan? Are you gonna explore any other cities in Japan or other parts of the world?
Christian: We hope that.

Jason: We hope to. We hope to film in Japan for a long time. So this morning we just spoke to Sapporo Broadcasting from Hokkaido and they were very interested. So they were watching this project pan out and they said, you know, in a year’s time, they’re planning to do a co-production and they were hoping that they could be with us to do a drama there. Hokkaido is really beautiful. You gotta come down to Hokkaido and shoot something.

And we’re looking to see if we can do this with other prefectures in Japan because it’s just, why not. And what’s exciting for Okinawa too is we’re doing it in English. It travels a lot more than a Japanese-only film. When it’s just in one language, it just tends to be limited and a lot of people would turn, “Oh, it’s subtitles. Whatever.” So they were really interested. “Wow! You’re gonna do it in English? Will it work?” Well, when we show people the trailer they were like, “Yeah, I don’t question it.” Everyone just says, “Yeah, a Japanese person speaking English.” Guess what, in Southeast Asia, we all speak English. You know, we’re all different: Chinese, different dialects, but we’re all speaking in English and watching things in English. So that’s our big mission as well. We keep telling people, “Is it okay to do it in English?” And it’s about time that we should do it.

And ‘Perfect Girlfriend’ was a good example, too. People, three years ago, thought we were stupid to do things in English. But we said, “But we’ll do it anyway.” And then we won all these North American festivals and when Netflix picked it up, guess what, no one said, “How can it be in Singapore but in English?” They just said, “Great story. We’d like to take it up.” You know, in Korea, we just became the first non-domestic web-drama on Naver, and they had not only no problem with it, but IHQ who distributed it, they said it jumped the queue in front of all their dramas to the front because they said Naver said this is really interesting. It’s a whole new market for us and we like this product and we like that. So we think it’s a big market.

Christian: Can we leak some news to you? Tomorrow [during the interview] we’re announcing our partnership agreement with iHQ, a media corporation. So in answer to your question, we would also like to do this with Korea. We consider the Korean drama market some of the best in the world, scriptwriting, acting. And it would be one of our dreams come true to shoot in Busan, Jeju Island.

Jason: So we’re partnering with iHQ which is one of the biggest talent agency in Korea. But they also have seven channels, their mother company is D’Live which is the biggest cable provider in Seoul. So you know, it’s been a good start. And they like our content. So they’re distributing to start with, and they said, “Well, we’re looking to start production.” So we’re leaking the news to you.

Christian: And let’s not forget Bali! We still wanna do something in Bali.

Jason: We wanna do something in Bali, too.  
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