An Unusual Look at The Chinese Movie Industry
American filmmaker Gil Kofman accepted a job to direct a film entitled Case Sensitive, the first action thriller to be made in China. Kofman had written and directed an indie feature thriller, The Memory Thief, in Hollywood, but had never been in China and was not an expert on Chinese movies. He knew little about the workings of the Chinese movie industry and assumed that the experience would be challenging.
Kofman thought the enterprise would be a good subject for a documentary. And here it is: Unmade in China.
The film, co-directed by Tanner King Barklow, follows Kofman and his small American crew to Xiamen in Southern China's Fujian Province, where they encounter a bureaucracy that outdoes anything you might find in Hollywood studios, and doesn't fit at all well with filmmakers and filmmaking. Seriously.
It's not just that there are cultural differences on the set, or that every snaffu that could possibly occur does, or that communication is difficult because everything must be translated and Kofman isn't sure that his intentions are understood or make clear to everyone.
Although Kofman's has been hired to direct the film, he learns rather quickly that his opinions and decisions mean next to nothing to his Chinese bosses, a combination of government functionaries and cinema industry bureaucrats who keep changing everything about the film without consulting him, and actually have the authority to do so. Kofman finds that the script has been rewritten without his input or consent, and that it makes no sense. He discovers that without any warning new cast members are hired to replace the actors he'd cast, including the female lead.
Kofman's Point of View
As the job progresses, Kaufman gets more and more frustrated with the Chinese movie industry. At one point he blows up and threatens to leave, but for the most part he filters the frustration with his acerbic humor -- much of it directed at the documentary camera. He's funny, and makes the most of the documentary, which is being shot while he's in the process of making Case Sensitive, to air his views about China's first thriller and about the Chinese movie industry, and life in China, in general.
Kofman and co-director Tanner King Barklow interview other members of the crew, allowing them to comment on the process and the Chinese film industry, and to air their grievances, as well. These are intercut with scenes of the crew drinking and dining -- and, basically, bribing -- Chinese officials, of mishaps on the set, and of a lot of footage of the crew and their Chinese interpreters and handlers searching for locations.
The Bottom Line
Interestingly, the location scouting serves as a sort of travelogue to Xiamen and the local lifestyle, while the rest is a painfully funny expose about the nature of the official feature filmmaking industry in China and about the production of Chinese film.
However, the expose is based exclusively on the experiences of Kofman and crew, as observed by Kofman and crew. The film is entertaining and interesting through and through, but lacks balance. You leave feeling that you haven't seen the whole picture, that there is another side to the story of filmmaking in China and Chinese film. And, indeed, there must be.
Case Sensitive -- which most likely will not be seen in US theaters, but which played at the 2012 St. Louis International Film Festival, where this documentary had its premiere -- may be a mess, but China is producing some remarkable films. Granted, films made by some accomplished Chinese directors -- including the wonderful Chen Kaige and Jia Zhangke, among others -- are made outside the official Chinese studio system, just as many acclaimed American filmmakers work independently.
Unmade in China would provide a richer experience for viewers if there were some reference made to fine Chinese movies, perhaps through interviews with Chinese directors who work within the studio system or independently, who could offer another dimension of insight about the production of Chinese movies made for release in Chinese theaters, reaching countless millions of Chinese audiences and, then, shown to millions more viewers in theaters around the globe, and influencing their thinking. The subject of Chinese movies, the Chinese movie industry and foreigners making movies in China is one that is truly fascinating and, ultimately, more important than this funny but superficial documentary.
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- Title: Unmade in China
- Director: Tanner King Barklow and Gil Kofman
- Running Time: 87 mins.
- US Theatrical Release Date: April 16, 2913 (limited)
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Location: Los Angeles and Xiamen, Fujian Province, China
- Language: English
- Production Country: USA
- Theatrical Distribution Company: Seventh Art Releasing
- Official Website