'Jimami Tofu' - A Love Affair Made in Okinawa

Earlier this month, we gave a shoutout for a newly-completed film called 'Jimami Tofu' by BananaMana Films, helmed by Jason Chan and Christian Lee. Fresh from the success of their Netflix hit called ‘Perfect Girl’, made for just $1000, this latest film endeavour of theirs takes a delicious turn. This is their first feature film and it is a marriage of food and love, that takes place in the seaside setting of Okinawa, Japan.

In the film, a Chinese Singaporean chef, formerly working in Tokyo, finds himself in Okinawa begging a disgruntled old chef to teach him traditional Okinawan food. A top Japanese food critic finds herself in Singapore on an eye opening discovery of SEA cuisine. In reality both are looking for each other after an emotional breakup years ago when she left him without a trace. Emotionally crippled by their breakup he searches her home-town for her but discovers instead the art of traditional Okinawan food. Through it he learns the incredible balance of two cultures: Chinese and Japanese - the homely, warmth of Chinese style cooking with the precision, delicacy and visual artistry of Japanese cuisine: a balance they never had in their relationship. When she suddenly appears in Okinawa looking to find closure he cooks and serves her their final meal. Through it she discovers what she had been yearning for all these years - the beauty of both cultures balanced to perfection and realises he has found the key to being together again. 

The film is led by an international cast including Jason Chan, Mari Yamamoto, Rino Nakasone, Masane Tsukayama, Christian Lee and many prominent Okinawan actors.
Jimami Tofu was shot with Sony’s A7sII and Sony is a proud sponsor of the film.

We trace the film's journey from field trip (to Okinawa) to finish, with the filmmaking duo Christian and Jason in an interview here.

Where did the film idea come from? What was the inspiration?

Jason and I were invited to Okinawa on a scouting trip 1 year ago in Feb 2016, and the Okinawa Film Office was showing us all around the different locations to film at, as well as briefing us on their film grant schemes. Once we started to discover the rustic part of Okinawa, the history of the Ryukyu dynasty and then tasted a 10 course Ryukyu dynastic meal (at Akatafu restaurant in Naha), the story came to both Jason and I one night on the last day before we were to fly back home to Singapore. The true inspiration was tasting that authentic dynastic food. We loved the balance between, Chinese, Japanese and Ryukyu flavours, ingredients and the cooking techniques. 

What were the challenges you and your team faced? 

Language barrier was by far the most difficult challenge. A lot gets lost in translation, at times there were cultural differences that made producing the development stages challenging. We in fact got rejected the first time we applied for the grant. It's how we overcame that rejection, that we hope inspires others. We kept pushing forward. We independently made a 5 minute promo with a crew of 5, and then reapplied for the grant, but this time submitting the promo to show exactly the type of film we wanted to make (style, treatment and quality of acting and storytelling). We were so determined that we started to even make plans to still shoot our film, with or without the grant. 

How did BananaMana films get to collaborate with Okinawa Tourism board? 

How we were chosen to go on that scouting trip, was by constantly making dramas and films, and by going to all the TV and Film markets in our region. We actually had met the Okinawa Film office 2 years earlier, and introduced our content at the time to them. Each year they would come visit us at the Singapore Pavilion booth either at ATF or HKFilmart and every year we had a new title we were selling. The take home message here is: make films, if you want to be a filmmaker, don't just talk about wanting to make them. The moment you make something, anything (a short film, webseries etc), you will be one more step towards your goal. For us, something always positively happened, when we made something. We would have never guess that by making a webseries with 4 of us, for only $1,000 (Perfect Girl), we would then end up with 17 nominations and 7 international awards, which would then lead to getting a global distribution deal on Netflix. It happened because we went out and made Perfect Girl. One thing leads to another, so as long as we just kept making things, we'd keep building our film careers.

Can you describe the pre production process where Team BananaMana set off to Okinawa?

It was a true test for Jason and myself. We went from a team of 4, who would normally do pre-production to just the 2 of us. It wasn't as overwhelming, because we knew the routine (break the script down, cast, lock locations, schedule, crew up), but it's a lot of work. We feel the advantage we have over others who might do the producing work for pre-pro, is we are also the writers, directors and editors. We can accurately estimate how much time we need to execute the filming of a particular scene. It's because we know what coverage and footage we need to get in order to edit our vision. When you constantly think of the edit, you streamline the whole planning process, and it's even more evident when we're directing. We only need certain angles that we know we're going to use. We know when we got the performance we are mostly likely going to use in the edit. Our advice, for any budding directors out there is to learn to edit. It will serve you as a writer as well. 

Can you tell me more in regards to the cast of the film? I found out from Jason that there's a Japanese dance choreographer and a Classic Okinawa Actor. 

The actress who plays Nami, Rino Nakasone, is actually a famous K-Pop dance choreographer as well as well known dance performer. Jimami Tofu marks her debut lead role.

Here's more info on her: A local Okinawan, Rino rose to international fame as one of the top dance choreographers for S.M. Entertainment, creating choreography for Girls’ Generation, Shinee and BoA. She’s also tour the world as a dancer for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Justin Bieber. With her love for performing, Rino is now embarking into acting, which is her new passion.

I think the Classic Okinawa Actor you might be referring to is Japanese A-list actor Masane Tsukayama. He's very famous in Japan, and Japanese people who notice that he's in our film are amazed that we secured him in our little independent film. We managed to get in touch with his manager, through our Okinawa producer. We had learned that he was originally born and raised until his teens in Okinawa, before he moved to Tokyo for his acting career. We sent him the script, which we had to get fully translated into Japanese, as well as get formatted into the traditional left right up down way. Once he read the story, and saw the potential of how this project could emotionally connect people to Okinawa, he signed on board.

It would be an amazing story, if it truly were just Jason and myself getting this film made, but that's not how filmmaking works. It's a huge collaborative effort. It only took us 2 to get the film off the ground, but then it starts to take a life of it's own, other very passionate people start contributing and growing it. Occasionally we had to guide it, but we quickly realised that if you cast and hire the right type of people to be a part of your vision, it all starts to magically come together. 

About BananaMana Films

Founded by Christian Lee and Jason Chan - BananaMana Films is a Singapore based company focussed on creating aspirational Asian dramas in English for global distribution. Their most prominent drama, Perfect Girl, won 7 awards and 17 nominations internationally and achieved global distribution this year when it was picked up by Netflix, VIKI and Korea’s NAVER TVcast. It became the second Singaporean film to be picked up by Netflix and the first non-domestic web-drama on NAVER TVcast. Most recently it was also acquired by D’live one of South Korea’s largest cable and IPTV networks.

Written by Jeremy Sing

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