From History Major to Filmmaker

Christian Lee
Christian Lee

Christian (Joel) Lee, B.A., History, ’90

A love of stories led Christian “Joel” Lee (B.A. ’90) on a journey from undergraduate history major at UC Davis to a career as an actor and independent filmmaker in Singapore.

Lee is co-founder of BananaMana Films, a production company specializing in creating Asian scripted dramas in English for web, TV and film.

After creating two award-winning dramatic series, BananaMana Films has produced its first feature film—Jimami Tofu, which will have its world premiere at the Nov. 2-12 Hawaii International Film Festival in Oahu.

Lee wrote, directed and produced Jimami Tofu with creative partner Jason Chan. Set in Okinawa, Japan, the movie tells a love story of a Chinese Singaporean chef and a Japanese food critic. Anna Page, co-director of programming for the Hawaii film festival, described Jimami Tofu as “a beautiful and delicious meditation on love, food, and our deep connection to place.”

The film has also been picked up by Korean studio Opus Pictures for global distribution and Encore Inflight.

Lee, who visited his hometown of Davis in late September for a private screening of the movie, traces his career in acting and filmmaking to his undergraduate major. “Studying history unlocked my love for stories, which most definitely played a part in where I am now, as a filmmaker telling stories,” he said.

Lee got a taste for performance in Davis junior high and high school choirs and theater productions. While attending UC Davis, he formed a pop/rock/ska/punk band called Lawsuit, which opened for No Doubt, Cake, Green Day and other bands during its 1987-1996 run. Lawsuit self-produced three albums, which Lee said was "a lesson in DIY that I apply to my filmmaking career."

After graduating from UC Davis, he studied acting and performed in New York. After five years in the city, he moved to East Asia, living in Hong Kong and Beijing before settling in Singapore. He and Chan founded BananaMana Films there in 2009.

“I was dissatisfied with the type of roles I was able to audition for as an Asian American actor in the U.S., and didn’t speak any other language fluent enough to get leading roles in Asia, so I chose to create my own projects, telling the stories I want to tell,” Lee said.

Kathleen Holder, social sciences writer for the College of Letters and Science.