“China only releases 20 foreign films each year,” a title card at the beginning of “Unmade in China” informs us, adding, “This is NOT one of them.” No kidding.
Co-directed by Tanner King Barklow and Gil Kofman, this genial documentary details what happened when Los Angeles-based director Kofman took a job in China to make a motion picture in a language he did not speak. It’s a cautionary tale of sorts, but the story is so strange it is often not clear exactly what it’s cautioning us against.
Inspired by the 2008 Internet phenomenon of “lonelygirl,” Kofman and screenwriter George Richards developed a script that came to the attention of an American producer working in China. Why the Chinese production company wanted Kofman or his material is never made clear, but the consequences were bizarre all around.
Recording it all was Kofman’s friend Barklow, who insisted on coming along when he found out about the project because “I could almost hear the train derailing.” And derail it did.
The documentary is constructed around footage Barklow shot (which often involves Kofman cracking wise to the camera) and snippets from a talk Kofman gave when the finished film, titled “Case Sensitive,” screened at a festival. “Unmade in China” takes its name from a film industry truism that states that a film is made three times: once in the writing, once in the shooting and once in the editing.
Except with “Case Sensitive,” it was unmade three times.
Shot in the southeast city of Xiamen, which improbably styles itself “the Miami of China,” “Case Sensitive” faced so many problems you’d think they were made up if the camera wasn’t there to record the crises.
First off, the script was so completely rewritten that Kofman couldn’t even be insulted. One director of photography was pushed out, another simply disappeared, and location scouting turned up a place that had so much radiation the locals said it was dangerous even to check it out.
Usually easygoing, Kofman begins to get furious as the depredations pile up. A giant vein appears on his forehead, a barometer of anxiety and discontent that makes him look like a “Star Trek” character. He thinks of leaving, but decides to stay.
“I feel like I’m on the Titanic,” he says, “and I want to stick around to see it go down. I’m rubber-necking my own disaster.”
Faced with a Chinese cut that is worse than he anticipates, Kofman thinks up a way to retaliate that turns the tables quite elegantly. It turns out there is a lesson in “Unmade in China” after all.
‘Unmade in China’
Rating: No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: At Downtown Independent
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