Death And Ramen Director Tiger Ji On The Power Of Food And Working With Bobby Lee

Awarding-winning director Tiger Ji stops by on Close-Up Culture to talk about his new short film, Death And Ramen.

The film follows a Ramen chef who spends his final night alive hanging out with the Grim Reaper. Through a bowl of ramen, they discover what it means to be human.

Thank you for sharing your wonderful film. You have created a film that covers a serious subject yet you have managed to also make it humorous which is really no easy feat, how did you manage to balance the two so well?

Thank you, that’s very kind! The film revolves around a man who tries to take his own life before eating a bowl of ramen, which may or may not have contained the components needed to save him. Things take an unexpected turn when the grim reaper appears, and the two embark on a strange late-night journey together.

Striking the right balance between comedy and tragedy was a real challenge for me as a writer. I wanted to address the man’s pain seriously while also injecting some humor into the story. There’s a quote that comes to mind, though I can’t recall the author, which compared this whole venture to putting a whoopee cushion on an electric chair.

Avoiding clichés was another challenge. The encounter between the man and Death is a well-worn trope, so I aimed to approach it with a fresh and sincere perspective, avoiding self seriousness or irony. Suicide and the harshness of life are central forces in the film, and I wanted to handle them with the necessary weight while also infusing moments of sweetness and humor. Irony was something I consciously avoided; each scene had to strike a delicate balance, never leaning too far in either direction. It was a real tightwire act.

What inspired you to create this story and how did you come up with the idea for the film?

It all started when I couldn’t resist imagining my own twist on “The Seventh Seal,” transforming it into a buddy comedy. Just picture Death and a man setting aside their serious chess match to share a nice bowl of ramen. It’s like, “Hey, we get it. But we’re also hungry. So this can wait. Let’s eat.” 

Then came the image of the man completely breaking down, crying in the arms of Death, and Death gently embracing him, telling him it’s okay. There was a strange humor to this image that made me laugh, but it also healed me. It’s like, what if Death were not this daunting figure hiding in the shadows? What if Death was capable of empathy and laughter? What if Death could be your friend?

You are a young filmmaker, yet you have already achieved so much. How did you get Academy Award winner Jonathan Sanger on board?

Wow, thank you. Gosh, I hope my mom reads this. You see that, mom? I’ve already “achieved so much”!

Jonathan discovered my work when I was just 18, and he has been a constant source of support ever since. He has become a tremendous mentor to me, offering guidance on various aspects of my career. I’m truly humbled by his unwavering support for my projects. I guess I just convinced him to Executive Produce my previous works, and from that point on, I never let him go.

Bobby Lee is an incredible actor, what is it about him that made you choose him for this role?

I’ve been a fan of Bobby’s standup comedy since I was a teenager. He’s like the OG Asian comedian, especially from his MAD tv days. I mean, nobody was doing what he was doing, and I was always blown away by how hilarious he is.

But what really made me choose Bobby for this role is the unique vulnerability he brings to his comedy. It’s like he can’t help but be completely open, yet he’s got this guardedness about him too. It’s an interesting mix that I thought would work perfectly for the character. So, I wrote the part specifically with him in mind.

In the film, his character goes through this transformation where his manic and dark side starts to fade away, and he becomes vulnerable again. I wanted to show a different side of Bobby, and I really hope this film gives him a chance to showcase his acting chops to the world. 

Ramen is almost a character itself in the film, what is it about Ramen that ensures it plays such a big part?

I liked the idea of making ramen a symbol for the antithesis of nihilism. It’s like the common denominator of life. The source of all happiness and health and love. I love ramen so much. It’s a source of happiness for me; it bridges the gap between cultures, it articulates love when words have failed us, and it satiates us with that life affirming umami. In the face of death, there is ramen.

Family is also at the heart of the film, why was it important to you to show the main character’s wider circle?

Sometimes people in families can’t communicate with one another. Food then comes in and bridges that gap, communicating love through the inarticulable. 

I think adding that visit to his mom’s creates a layer of complexity to Bobby’s character – this is someone who has someone he loves. Also, if I knew I was dying and would be dead by the morning, I would visit my mom, like most people. It’s kind of just what you do.

BTS of Death And Ramen

Death is often a taboo subject, was there a personal connection you had to telling this story? 

I was inspired to write this story after losing my grandpa. I learned something really important after that loss: if we didn’t leave, our stay could never be meaningful.

I feel like American culture, especially, has this way of sweeping conversations about death under the carpet. But it shouldn’t be that way. We must be able to acknowledge cessation in order to truly be present in the finite time span we have. So, having learned this, I tried to communicate it in the best way I could through this film.

What is next for you?

I have a few cool things in the pipeline, including turning Death & Ramen into a feature film. (Surprise! It was a proof-of-concept!) I am resolved to make it by 2025. Please hold me accountable here!

I also have the distinct honor of studying with one of my cinematic heroes, Ruben Ostlund, this summer in Italy. Since my teenage years in Hong Kong, I’ve admired Ruben’s unique way of approaching difficult questions through biting satire and humor. In July I’ll be heading to the picturesque city of Bologna, Italy, where I’ll dive headfirst into the process of writing, filming, and editing my own film under his guidance! How cool is that?

Leave a Reply