Asian Content in English: A Possibility for Filmmakers Here

By Felicia Hoe, Cedar Girls' Secondary School

Jason Chan and Christian Lee first started out making corporate videos and uploading D-I-Y videos on online platform, YouTube. However, today they are the founders of international award-winning production company, Banamana Films, which have won many international accolades for their various films and web series: What do men want, Perfect Girl, Bang Bang Club and most recently Jinami Tofu. A few of them had also been picked up by big names such as Netflix and Viki, allowing for the global outreach of their films.  This is not common, especially in the Singapore media industry where Asian films in English are not seen as ‘the norm’. In fact, it did not start out easy for them, but luckily with the support of many and their passion and a specific vision in mind, the duo is now where they are.

Banamana films was created with a mission in mind and it was to generate premium content in English in order to create role models for Asians around the globe. This could not be accomplished by simply being actors or producing corporate videos. Hence, they decided to step out of their comfort zones and soon they were producing their first web series, What do men want? After being commissioned by a local web platform, the 13 episodes TV series even continued on by going on air on national broadcaster, Mediacorp.

Their second production, Perfect Girl was not as smooth sailing and after failing to find a commissioner, the duo decided to take the risk and with only a $1000 budget and one employee, they filmed the now international award winning Perfect Girl. It was hence a huge surprise to everyone when the show was nominated for awards overseas, so much so that they did not even attend the awards ceremony!  They also exclaimed jokingly that, “In fact, we were the only Asian film and the one with the lowest budget!” explaining the shock of the other nominees and the big shots they were up against. 

Their newest project Jinami Tofu was a blessing to the production company as they had the support of Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Okinawa Prefecture’s Film Tourism Promotion Project.  Before the duo was given the opportunity to visit Okinawa, they had the idea of just incorporating the place into a Singapore based film. However, all that changed when they visited the country where they were left amazed by the culture and beauty of the landscape.

“Okinawa felt like home,” one of them exclaimed as they described their journey travelling around the villages.  By the end of the journey, they had thoroughly changed their idea for the film and instead decided to showcase Okinawa as the place where one can feel at home while showcasing the delicious food culture of the place. The success of Jinami Tofu was hence due to their experience which made them want to connect Okinawa with the rest of the world.

However, all was not easy for the pair of producers and they recall having to toggle between having to hold the filming equipment, acting and directing at the same time while producing the shows. Hence, what kept them going was their passion to create something of value and wanting to be able to put up quality content that is aspirational and sophisticated. But having a vision was not enough, so what was it that made their productions so successful? Well, their strategy was to always keep in mind that their films must be something that can sell and people would want to buy. Hence, during the production process, they would always question themselves, “Would I be willing to pay for this?” and if no, how can they improve it.

So, how do the producers get their inspiration from? Or more importantly how do they constantly keep the creative process going? Their secret: the “yes and” game which they use when they are stuck at a dead end when writing or even to come up with ideas for a storyline. The pair starts explaining patiently to the audience the rules of the game as many looked confused just like you right now when they mentioned this. Firstly, one of them starts with a sentence and acts it out before passing the story on to the next person where he would have to say “yes and” before continuing the ‘story’ no matter how weird or unusual. No ‘buts’ are allowed as it would just ruin the game the duo jokes while they demonstrate to the audience their little brainstorming tool. This game was crucial to the start of their creative process and can be used very conveniently by those who need to come up with something creative anytime, anywhere!

When asked on what they have to say to any aspiring filmmakers out there, both said without hesitation that it was crucial to “keep putting it up” and to ignore any stigma that would stop one from pursuing their interests. This was what kept them going and they believe that only if one keeps trying will one succeed in the industry.

After all they are the producers that went from having to film with just one employee at the start to being given a 25-man crew, leaving them flabbergasted and at a loss of words. And indeed, the duo is a living example about how important it is to persevere and to create what you love.