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BananaMana Films - In the mood for love

last updated 26 January 2017

A love for films inspired Christian Lee and Jason Chan to throw caution to the wind and create movies that they can be proud of, act in and call 100 per cent their own.

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The creative duo behind BananaMana Films, Jason (left) and Christian, will be releasing their first feature film, Jimami Tofu, soon. (Photo credit: BananaMana Films)

By Peter Yeo

Christian and Jason are the creative powerhouses behind BananaMana Films, an independent video production house that prides itself on “Asian scripted dramas in English for web, TV and film”. Since their 10-episode digital series Perfect Girl was picked up by Netflix Global and Korea’s Naver TV Cast, the studio has been on a roll. Their What Do Men Want series – commissioned for Mediacorp’s over-the-top (OTT) channel Toggle.sg – has made it to the broadcaster’s prime English channel, Channel 5 and will also be shown on Naver TV Cast. Now in the midst of wrapping up their first movie, Jimami Tofu, this string of successes has undoubtedly cemented BananaMana Films’ footing in the filmmaking scene in the region.

The duo says the “banana” in the company’s name refers to the two – “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” (Jason is originally from Australia and Christian from the United States), while “Mana” is Polynesian in origin. “It means power, authority, control, influence, prestige and honour,” said Christian. They had decided to commit to full-time filmmaking in New Zealand when the inspiration to fortify the company mission of “creating aspiration premium, Asian dramas in English for global distribution” with “Mana” hit, Christian said.

We see that “Mana” in action when Christian emphasised that they would fight to retain creative control. “We’ve been blessed. When we did What Do Men Want… we were given pretty much full creative control,” said Christian. The pair took that creative freedom and translated it into an Outstanding Directing award at the Los Angeles WebFest and a distribution on Naver TV Cast. It also paved the way for Perfect Girl, which was picked up on Netflix and garnered seven international awards and 14 nominations, recounted Christian with pride.

“Creative freedom to us is much more important than commissioning budgets, and if we’re going to own the IP (intellectual property), we have to have the control to create the IP that we’re going to be proud of,” said Christian.

That creative spark, accompanied by a string of distribution deals and accolades, helped open doors to the Japanese market for the filmmakers. Japan’s Okinawa Film Office was so impressed with BananaMana Films when they met them at the 2014 Asia TV Forum & Market (ATF) and again in 2015 that they invited the duo on a fully-funded scouting trip to introduce them to Okinawa. That trip led to their first feature film, Jimami Tofu.

Even though they were not given the film subsidy grant the first time they applied, the film office invited BananaMana Films to resubmit their application because they fell in love with the story.

But it wouldn’t have mattered if they had not obtained the grant, said Christian. “We started to think of solutions – how we could guerilla film the whole script completely on our own. That kept us positive and forward moving.” Fortunately, they received the grant on the second try and it worked out but “we would have still made our film no matter what”, added Christian.

Getting creative does not only apply to scriptwriting and directing projects. BananaMana Films is “disrupting” the filmmaking industry by hacking the entire production process. “We deconstructed the production workflow to constantly leverage technology when it comes to writing, producing, casting, cameras, lights and editing, in order to bring down costs and, ultimately, empower ourselves to be able to tell our own stories.

Perfect Girl is a great example that anyone can write a story, get four people together to produce it and go on to get a global distribution deal,” he added. 

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