Actor Bobby Lee in blue pajama top sits at a table with a bowl of ramen and other small objects on top, with chopsticks in his hand.

How Tiger Ji’s ‘Death and Ramen’ Delivers Catharsis in a Noodle Bowl

The new short, featuring Bobby Lee, rethinks perceptions about passing on

Bobby Lee as Timmy in "Death and Ramen."

Courtesy of Tiger Ji

Words by Andy Crump

In Death and Ramen, Hong Kong-born and New York-based filmmaker Tiger Ji’s new short film, Timmy (Bobby Lee) fixes himself a bowl of kimchi ramen, tosses back a bottle of Ambien, and waits for death to haul him away to the next life. Right on cue, Death (Matt Jones) comes a-knocking on Timmy’s door, but accidentally makes him yak up his final meal; the pair spend the remainder of the evening on the prowl for a second helping of kimchi ramen while Timmy says his final goodbyes. Morbid in the abstract, but tender in execution, the short looks for harmony between living and dying, and finds that balance in a steaming, inviting bowl of spicy noodles.

It’s tempting to read Death and Ramen as a provocation for making Timmy’s failed suicide into a joke. But Ji’s sensitivity to how cultures worldwide take a hidebound view of death as a subject to avoid, rather than an inevitability we all must make peace with, gives the film a gentle touch to contrast with gallows humor. Making a straightforwardly serious movie about death with Lee and Jones occupying the lead roles is impossible; they’re constitutionally funny people. Ji directs them to reach for more, beyond comic timing, in an effort at celebrating life by acknowledging death. The film suggests that we have to take the bad (dying) with the good (divine ramen), and that if we can do that, then maybe shuffling off of our mortal coils isn’t so bad after alland maybe Death is more of a friend than a monster.

Ji studied his craft with Sweden’s Ruben Östlund, director of the Palme d’Or winning films The Square (2017) and Triangle of Sadness (2022). Östlund takes his material seriously while finding ways to have fun with it, a lesson Ji has taken to heart and brought to his work, including his first short, Wuhan Driver (2021). With Death and Ramen, Ji found himself in a new creative headspace, free from the oppressive need to lord directorial authority over his cast and crewan approach common among directors his age, but which drives a wedge between them and their casts and crews.

In other words, Death and Ramen sees Ji growing up, though thankfully not enough to suck all the comedy out of his aesthetic. We spoke to Ji about this developmental stage of his filmmaking career, as well as the value of good casting and what makes ramen such a cinematic dish.

Andy Crump: Death and Ramen occupies a small but wonderful nichethe ramen movie. Ramen Shop, Tompopo, and Ramen Heads come immediately to mind. I feel like there's something about ramen that makes it a focal point for movies in a way that many other dishes aren’t capable of.
Tiger Ji: It is such a distinctly cinematic dish, I think, because it's so simple. It's highbrow and lowbrow at the same time, in terms of how the cuisine mimics how a movie functions in the culture. It's at once comforting, but it can also be served in a Michelin-star restaurant. It could be this very deeply blue collar thing, but also a very avant garde thing, and I love that.

And then on a deeper level, for me specifically, I think I was looking for a very simple metaphor to talk about the antithesis of nihilism that pervades a lot of our culture right now. I wanted to create something very simple, which is what ramen is. Of course Tampopo was a huge reference.

There's also a deeply personalized aspect for me. I grew up eating ramen. My mother was very busy, but every Sunday, she would make sure to make time for me to make a bowl of noodles. I think just that idea of communicating, the otherwise difficult to communicate, showing of love, and articulating something that would be very hard to say straight up, especially in Asian culture. That’s all there, you know? So I think you're spot on saying how it's a very cinematic dish, and it's very layered in that way tooat once simple and complex.

AC: Yeah. I don't think I've ever seen a movie like, say, Death and Risotto. Risotto is great and I think could occupy the same sort of space, except it's not cinematic at all. What about noodles, to you, identifies so well as cinematic? Because I think you're right, there's something cinematic about it, just innately.
TJ: Well, just visually, there's every color in it. You get the scallions and you get the soup, and visually it just looks beautiful, versus risotto, which is just one color. But for me, in Chinese culture, on your birthday, instead of eating birthday cakes, there's this thing called cheung sau mien, which basically translates to “noodle of longevity.” You eat it on your birthday to guarantee a long wonderful life. The noodles are traditionally really long. I think that's cool, because on the flip side of this metaphor of Death and Ramen is the opposite of that, right? Death and suffering and nihilism and all that are an undeniable aspect of life, so you need to take the bitterness with the sweetness. I wanted to offer something that was both, that had both in it, and didn't look away from either side.

Actor Bobby Lee in "Death and Ramen," dressed in light blue pajamas, stands in a kitchen preparing a bowl of ramen.

In "Death and Ramen," Bobby Lee's character Timmy's final meal is a bowl of kimchi ramen.

Courtesy of Tiger Ji

AC: I think the complexity of the story matches well with the experience of eating a good bowl of ramen. In that regard, I think casting is important, because you need somebodytwo somebodieswho are both innately funny, but also capable of letting grief and existential awe breathe through the comedy. I couldn't think of two people who would be better together for that. I'm curious about Matt. I don't think he gets a lot of recognition or respect, but I think he's wonderful. What brought him into this?
TJ: Casting was very specific. It started off as just a fantasy baseball sort of thing. “Wouldn't it be cool if we had this guy or that guy?” It was entirely up in the air. I didn't really have a casting director. It was just cold reach outs. For me, with Matt, Badger was always my favorite part of Breaking Bad. He's introduced as this whimsical character who spins a sign on the side of the road, and then the payoff to the sign is that he spins Jesse Pinkman in a fight. That quote, “Helicopter, bitch!” [laughs]

I really love his presence. I think he's a really nonchalant, hilarious guy. And his voice is so distinct. It all goes back to, I would say, the ethos of the movie, which is subverting this cultural taboo of conversations surrounding mortality. So, the way he's presented, his character shows up at the doorstep, in a black hood, and carries [Lee’s character] off, and there's this intriguing yet terrifying undertone to it. And then he drops him, and he takes off the hood, and it's just Badger with a friendly face.

And that's my perspective. Once you actually confront this, which is my experience with me being in and out of life, confrontations with mortality, be it people close to me who passed away, or just on a theoretical level, it's just a very simple fact that when you see it for what it is, it provides you ambition to live a life that's most full. This idea of befriending Death is not like surrendering to nihilism, but more embracing that, yes, things are going to end, but by surrendering yourself, you're making yourself vulnerable to the ultimate fact that we try to hide ourselves from, right? Once you do that, in a way you're truly living.

A closeup of actor Matt Jones as Death in "Death and Ramen."

Matt Jones plays Death in "Death and Ramen."

Courtesy of Tiger Ji

AC: The way you describe death, I’m reminded of On a Pale Horse, by Piers Anthony, where the main character assumes the office of Death. He quotes Coleridge at the end: “Death came with friendly care.” That’s what Death does here. But besides that, other than Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, I can't think of a movie that has portrayed Death as such a stumblebum. Matt is such a good pratfall guy.
TJ: Yeah. Initially, I thought, “What if we did the Bill and Ted thing?” Matt was resistant to that, I think in part just because he didn't want to get full face makeup for three hours every day for a short. On another level, he said, “Why do you want to heighten it like that? Why do you wanna make it this theatrical thing? You’re telling me, Tiger, that you want to subvert this idea? Wouldn't it be cooler if he was just a normal guy. What if it's just me?”

I said, “Well, can you shave?” And he said, “No, I won’t shave.” I was like, well, can you shave? He said, “No, I won’t shave.” [laughs]

Actor Matt Jones presses down on a black sheet over a white pillow with two men in yellow safety vests in the foreground and background.

Tiger Ji (left) gives Matt Jones direction on the set of "Death and Ramen."

Courtesy of Tiger Ji

AC: I respect that. I think that works, actually, because he’s not Death; he’s one Death. Matt mentioned heightening things. I think that makes sense because it gives Bobby more room to let Timmy breathe; obviously he’s about to die, but it gives more room for Timmy to be Timmy, and Bobby to put life into that character on the precipice of death. So I’m curious about your relationship with Bobby. With that anecdote with Matt, you strike me as a collaborative type. How did working with Bobby go in light of that?
TJ: I actually don't know if I'm by nature that way. Making Death and Ramen as a 22-year-old filmmaker working with Matt and Bobby, I was forced to be that way. I’m actually very specific and everything's very plotted. But in a way, I benefited from surrendering myself, and choosing my battles. Working with Bobby felt like, and in the best way possible, wrestling a hurricane. He's gonna say it the way he says it, you know? It’s not like he doesn't have the devices to take direction. It's just that you write it for him, and if you let him flourish, you just give him minimal notes. You can't really talk to him like a trained actor. You have to say, “Less of this, more of that.” It has to be under 10 words, which is not how I am, and not how I was trained as a director. I studied theater directing for a bit, so for me, dramaturgy, and scene work, and extended conversations about the psyche are important.

But with him, it was this very stripped back thing. There was no real set process. It was just me as a human being talking to Bobby as a human being, kind of like doing therapy, a little bit.

AC: You’re describing him as more of a primal forcenot something to be directed, but something to be unleashed. Is that fair?
TJ: Yes. For someone like Bobby specifically, he's used to acting like the Mad TV sort of acting, the Judd Apatow kind of acting, where there are four cameras, and they’re just improvising the whole way through. They're funny naturally. That’s just what they do. And the more laughs they get from the crew, the better it is. But that's not this type of movie. I wanted to utilize that sense of humor, but ultimately, on top of being funny, to have something to say, or hopefully to have something to say. There was a lot of, “Okay, let's do a little less.” Naturally he's almost like an operatic forcethe “yes, and” sort of thing. But he is wonderful. I think more than anything, working on Death of Ramen was a big learning experience for me in terms of working with talent and being as humble and grateful for the opportunity as possible, and retaining vision in spite of that.

Director Tiger Ji in a yellow safety vest and actor Bobby Lee in a light blue pajama top look at a small screen, with camera men and an empty road in the background.

Tiger Ji (left) and Bobby Lee behind the scenes on the set of "Death and Ramen."

Courtesy of Tiger Ji

AC: Now that you're on the verge of screening this, and it’s ready to be put out in the wild, it sounds like you’ve absorbed this as a developmental learning experience for you. You’ll certainly change and grow more as people start to see it, but in the course of having finished it and put the thing in the can, how do you feel like you have changed as a filmmaker?
TJ: I think I became a lot more playful. When I made my first short, Wuhan Driver, the conception that being the youngest person on set meant that, in order to be taken seriously, I had to know everything and be this infallible figure, distanced me from the rest of my crew. Doing Death and Ramen helped me see it myself as a part of this big family. It's not so much learning to compromise, but learning to open yourself up to that which you can't plan. Look, I'm a really serious planner. The whole movie was animated before it was made. I created an animated storyboard, with voice actors. If you watch it, it's pretty much one-to-one, which for someone like Bobby is a very interesting kind of process.

But I just feel like I'm interested in making dark comedies. I was studying with this filmmaker, Ruben Östlund, and he taught me a lot. He does like 50 takes for some of his shots.

AC: He’s a perfectionist.
TJ: Yeah, but not in a [David] Fincher way. The way he does it is playful. There’s a way to have both. You can have the cake and eat it. You can not compromise and still make friends. That's a really important thing for me to learn at this age, because there's a certain well that you can draw upon in the creative process that is dark and comes from your trauma and suffering. I think that a lot of artists who draw upon that well make great art, but it comes at a cost, and it also colors the art in a certain way. It becomes this very traumatic experience. I know a handful of people in their 20s who think that this is the only way to do it, whereby the act of creating is experiencing the trauma all over again.

I'll be honest with you: Death and Ramen was initially inspired by this incident when I was in high school, and I was 16 years old, and I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. Making Death and Ramen took me to a very raw place, and yet opening it up to someone like Bobby, and opening it up to the scrutiny of the world meant that I had to give death a hug in the way that I hope that the movie communicates. It’s embracing the absolutely somber, and dark, and drab, and smiling in spite of it, and bringing levity and humor and heart to it as well. I think that that, to me, is what filmmaking is ultimately about: Grappling with real, honest, dark things, and never looking away, confronting it head on, eyes open, ready and afraid, and still never forgetting to fuck around, to make it funny and dark and interesting.

Published on December 5, 2023

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.