03 April 2018 | Daniel Yun | Today
Ramen Teh marks coming of age of co-productions with foreign partners
Recently a young guy I know, who we sometimes broadly categorise as a millennial, asked me gushingly: “Do you know Takumi Saitoh is in a Singapore film?” I nodded briefly. I thought he should be referring to the Eric Khoo movie starring Japanese pop idol Seiko Matsuda alongside Mark Lee and Jeannette Aw.
After watching Ramen Teh, I left the cinema feeling a little overwhelmed.
The perennial and single biggest challenge our semblance of a film industry faces has been our small market. The two most logical solutions have been to produce movies that can travel to foreign markets, and to co-produce with overseas filmmakers.
Yet our filmmakers have taken decades to come around to fully comprehending these seemingly simple solutions as well as adjusting their approaches and skill-sets to finally yield some results.
Experienced filmmakers know the two solutions are integral and linked. When we co-produce with filmmakers from mature markets, we are exposed to a much wider talent pool of creative producers, directors, writers, in short, the world of international filmmaking. Besides learning, relearning, sharing resources, shooting in foreign locales, ultimately there is a collective experience of selling a Singapore film globally.
Unlike writing a book or painting, filmmaking is a team effort. Singapore filmmakers are grasping the notion that this team does not, and perhaps should not, be just a local team, for more than financial reasons.
If a filmmaker thinks a local subject may be diluted with co-producing, the fact is, the reverse is true.
Producers worth their weight in gold will want a subject matter to stay resolutely true and real to its origins. In our inter-connected world, local subjects should no longer be viewed only with a local lens.
There are co-productions and there are co-productions. The actioner 2000AD starring Aaron Kwok and James Lye, or the just released Pacific Rim: Uprising with a diverse ensemble cast, shot in Australia, China, Japan, Seoul and Iceland, are structured deals of filmmaking primarily to penetrate markets.
There are also co-productions involving investments from various countries to spread financial risks, with the token foreign location shoots and cast members. All these films are still indigenous. The foreign elements are just that, foreign.
Then there are co-productions that fuse cultures, merge expertise, with final creative products that are real, engaging and the outcomes of great and immersive collaborations.
Apprentice is a five-country collaboration, with its script developed in a reputable film lab. Pop Aye is a meditation of the human condition, seen through a Thai narrative.
While early Asian co-produced titles like The Eye, Infernal Affairs II and Painted Skin are largely seen as Hong Kong and China movies, Apprentice and Pop Aye have gone on to be lauded internationally as Singapore films, helmed by Singaporeans.
Which brings me to Ramen Teh. I am overwhelmed by how far such a co-production has evolved; heartened by how it is at once a Singapore film and a Japanese film.
How, as a co-produced film, the cultures of both countries are presented on a same equal plane. How our local names exist alongside big Japanese superstars and hold their own.
How someone like Eric Khoo is able, with his standing in the film world, to bring all these cinematic elements into one wholesome story about the family unit surviving the travails of war, told through a culinary blend of Singaporean and Japanese cuisines.
But is Ramen Teh any good as a film? To me, the characters are as real as the collaboration is seamless. When was the last time, while watching a movie, you started caring for a character without knowing it?
And when something momentous happens to the character, you feel all the significance. In the theatre where I was watching the film, many in the audience were tearing.
At its core, Ramen Teh has a big heart. There is tenderness in the ways the director handles the characters, as there is love in the ways he directs and shoots the food dishes. I have never felt more proud of our local food.
To have famous Japanese chefs enjoying and aspiring to master cooking some of them! To have a foreigner describing a famous local dish in details we always knew but never heard in Japanese. This is a film Singaporeans can be proud of.
Fran Borgia, founder of Akanga Film Asia has witnessed the evolution of Singapore co-productions. The filmmaker came here 15 years ago.
“Yes, at that time it was very hard to start a project as a co-production, as the industry here was still too small and we were not exposed to other industries,” he said.
“The first film that worked as a co-production for us was titled Mister John, in 2012, between Singapore, UK and Ireland.”
“The director was Irish, but the film was shot in Singapore, and we got support from IMDA,” Fran added, referring to the Info-communications Media Development Authority.
Co-productions can create problems. But they are “good problems”, he said.
“Creating co-productions allow a film to have different perspectives from the creative team, and increase the production values at the same time. Any of the films we have produced, from Apprentice to A Yellow Bird, they won’t be what they are if there were not co-produced. It probably would have been made as well, but it would have been a very different film.”
Fran is finishing A Land Imagined, a co-production between Singapore, France and The Netherlands. This film is the first of three collaborations between his company and Singapore’s biggest producing company, mm2 Entertainment.
m2 Entertainment has also partnered Fox Networks Group Asia to co-produce six Chinese-language features directed by up-and-coming filmmakers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
The mm2’s slate includes ‘Killer Not Stupid’, Jack Neo’s first feature set outside Singapore and Malaysia, presently shooting in Taiwan. “The shift in co-productions started several years ago with a new-found focus from ‘Made In Singapore’ to ‘Made By Singapore’”, Joachim Ng, the director of Singapore Film Commission explained.
SFC has a grant called Film Mentorship Initiative, which fully supports high potential local filmmaking talents to be trained in script labs such as the TorinoFilmLab and Jerusalem International Film Lab.
There are also classes and workshops by renowned auteurs. Soon, this redirection of focus to ‘Made By Singapore’ will be even stronger.
In May there will be an announcement on the refinements to the IMDA grant, where previous emphasis on expenditures within Singapore will be balanced by expenditure outside of Singapore!
Presently, about 15 per cent of local output are co-productions. This is set to increase. In mature markets, co-productions average about 50 per cent of output.
Joachim is happy to have supported Ramen Teh and is proud to be associated with it. To him, “there is nothing contrived in the storytelling from Japan to Singapore; both the Singaporean and Japanese cultures are authentic in this movie.”
Lim Teck, the founder of Clover Films, an investor and producer of Ramen Teh, told me he was “captivated by the story after reading the script.” He is still amazed at the level of production values, calibre of cast, shot at a relatively humble budget of US$1million (S$1.31 million).
Ramen Teh is Eric’s eighth film and took three years to make. He is aware each film has a life of its own. He is grateful for the ways the threads of this film, initially conceptualised to celebrate 50 years of friendship between Japan and Singapore, are woven together.
His fascination with Japan runs deep, dating back to Tatsumi, his 2011 aminated feature. This time, he is captivated by Takasaki, a city with a Guan Yin as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
His gastronomic tastes are equally ingrained, from his debut feature Mee Pok Man to the recent docu-fiction Wanton Mee. This time, Japanese chef Keisuke Takeda and Singapore food blogger Dr Leslie Tay are tapped as consultants on the culinary scenes.
I told Eric, a frontrunner of co-producing, that with Ramen Teh, Singapore co-productions have come of age.
At last count, it has been sold to more than 40 countries. On every level, this is the example how boundaries between countries, between races, and between cultures are crossed and blurred.
And in telling a most compelling story, how the final film show the respect we have for foreign talents, while we respect our own.