Lies, Laments and Lessons Learned on Filming in China: ‘Unmade in China’

“I can’t believe we’re doing this. It’s a long way to go to prove a point.” This “way,” for American filmmaker Gil Kofman, is long in more ways than one. At this particular moment, near the end of the documentary Unmade in China, Kofman is en route to Xiamen, China, again, where he hopes to discover that the project he began to film and didn’t quite complete is, in fact, available. By which he means, pirated.

The story of how Gil Kofman comes to be filming in China is at once antic and instructive, a saga of frustration and perseverance, business and government. He knows what he’s doing, Kofman assures you at film’s start, having made an indie thriller called The Memory Thief in the States. When the American financing for his next film, “iCapture” — based on a true story, the “Lonelygirl15” internet hoax, enhanced to include a murder and cover-ups — he’s confident enough to take a risk. Offered a chance to shoot the film in China, Gil says okay, then invites Tanner King Barkow to shoot the shoot.

The journey from a film’s origins to its end is often long and never straight, of course, but Unmade in China — conjured amid its own set of circumstances — follows an especially circuitous route, from a title change (to Case Sensitive) to a series of efforts to “reinvent it culturally.” From the start, expectations vary. Producer Seth Sher guesses the process will be smooth enough: the story is “malleable,” he says, “You could change it, you know, for China.” (That Sher appears here in a New York barbershop chair having his bald head trimmed, becomes something of a running joke in the film, as he appears again and again in other, Chinese, barbershop chairs: his routine, his attention to his head, remains in place, no matter the chaos that might spring up around him.) But writer George Richards worries, just a little, that the translation might be a little more complicated, beginning with the premise, “such an American pop culture thing: that was my original concern, how are we going to make this work in China?”

It’s a question worth asking, amid today’s frequently celebratory accounts of global entertainment. But even if expanding markets equal endless profits, Unmade in China at least gestures toward the question of other costs, for instance, what’s lost in unmaking a film in order to make money? As the Americans learn almost as soon as they land in Xianmen, none of their ideas is understood as necessary; the first scene in the Chinese rewrite takes place on a beach, though, as Richards observes, there was no beach in his urban-set script. In fact, he says, the revisions process in China sort of begins like the one in US, with “dumb notes” from producers; in China, however, the notes aren’t suggestions. They lead directly to what’s called the “seventh edit,” in which the script is transformed utterly, to accommodate (if not precisely anticipate) location, costume, and casting decisions made by the Chinese producers.

As Case Sensitive changes shape, seemingly by the hour, Unmade in China assembles its own plot, mostly built on Gil’s observations to Barkow’s camera in China, as well as some inserts that look more like a standup comedy routine, Gil with a microphone cracking jokes for an off-screen audience. Recalling the structure of another documentary about translating an American product for another audience, Exporting Raymond, this business both trivializes and complicates the shifting relationships between subjects and filmmakers, with producers included, in this case, in both categories.

In part, these complications are a function of numbers: Unmade in China involves layers of project and makers, in collusion, in hierarchies, and in conflict. But they’re also a matter of communication, expectations, and stubbornness, on all sides. If Unmade in China focuses on the experience of The Gll and his English-speaking cohorts — out of convenience as much as thematic (that is, “fish out of water”) interest — it also indicates other experiences, those of the many other subjects appear quite aware of the camera, and, even as their comments remain untranslated here, more or less determined to do their jobs, from toasting to success at dinners with government officials or planning around construction noise on locations.

That said, the film makes particular jokes of a couple of people, a scheduler who looks alone and confused in the few moments she appears on screen and the script supervisor Will Boo, whom Gil takes to be a spy for the producers, or at least someone who has his job only because he’s related to a “head woman.” (You know, like they do in Hollywood.) Deeming Will Boo “the bane of my existence,” Gil sees him as one of many duplicitous officials on and off set. “That’s corruption,” asserts Gil, “When you know they’re lying to you, but you don’t want to say it.”

Will Boo has much the same idea about the Americans. “Firstly,” he says, “I don’t trust the people who live in bourgeois lifestyle, coming from Beverly Hills, and I don’t trust the vegetarian, you know. I just don’t trust them because they never could understand a different culture.” With his observations constituting a flipside of Gil’s, the film offers another view of the long way both men are taking, whether or not either might “prove a point.” And so, even as the documentary welcomes a Western audience who will get the jokey disparaging of the Chinese industry’s dishonesty and incompetence as such, it also alludes to broader industry corruptions, elsewhere and everywhere.

RATING 6 / 10