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Indie Snapshot: Unmade in China

by Ethan Alter May 3, 2013 9:22 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Unmade in China</i>

As media reporters rarely miss an opportunity to remind us, China is rapidly becoming the world's biggest market for entertainment. Amidst the Hollywood studios in particular, getting a movie onto the nation's carefully regulated screens represents the new box office Holy Grail. To try and grease the wheels in their favor, more and more big companies are striking co-production deals with Chinese media conglomerates as a way around the lengthy, laborious approval process. The documentary Unmade in China depicts another potential way for American filmmakers to tap into this market. Unable to find domestic funding for his thriller based on the infamous "lonelygirl 15" Internet scam, indie director Gil Kofman winds up finding an interested backer in China and agrees to direct a Chinese-language version of the film on location in Xiamen, despite having never visited the country before or speaking a single word of Mandarin or any other of the country's numerous dialects.

This sounds like the set-up for a timely, entertaining account of the benefits and problems of cross-cultural artistic collaboration. And that's what Unmade in China might have been had Kofman actually gone into this experience with an open mind. Right from the beginning, though, he expresses a level of trepidation about the enterprise, not to mention condescension about his host country (witness the lame jokes about concubines that he makes to his wife early on) that suggests disaster is looming. And, indeed, things go wrong very quickly. His script goes through seven drafts at the hands of government-affiliated writers, each version making less sense than the last; actors are cast and then forcibly replaced; the necessary equipment isn't rented; promised product placement never materializes; etc. etc. Granted, some of these problems are just par for the course in making a movie, but it's also obvious that the Chinese film industry operates in a very... let's say, unique way. Confronted with a culture he doesn't understand and a level of bureaucracy that seems out to stymie creativity, it's understandable why Kofman so often throws his hands up in the air in frustration.

Nevertheless, it's equally telling that he doesn't really try to learn how to navigate his new personal and professional surroundings, preferring instead to stand around moaning and complaining like the classic stereotype of the Ugly American abroad. Confronted with challenging circumstances, he responds by putting blinders on and retreating to a place of perceived superiority, where he's the lone professional working amongst a bunch of amateurs. And since he's the co-director of the documentary (along with his handpicked cameraman, Tanner King Barklow) the movie obviously takes his side, only occasionally speaking with a member of his crew for their perspectives on how the shoot is progressing. (The most prominently featured of these worker bees is a guy who talks at length about how much he distrusts Americans, further bolstering the movie's one-sided argument that it's a case of Kofman vs. "Them.") Ultimately, Unmade in China is ultimately less about the experience of making a movie in China than it is a chronicle of one director's wounded ego.

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