Review: ‘Unmade in China’ is an Absurd Tale of American Filmmakers Working on a Chinese Movie

By  · Published on April 20th, 2013

Documentaries about the production of a movie can go two ways. The film being filmed is completed without a hitch and the studio or distributor puts the “making of…” special on the DVD, or it’s a disastrous shoot and not exactly something executives want to flaunt in the form of a bonus feature. The latter can include docs on films that are miraculously finished (Burden of Dreams; Overnight; Hearts of Darkness) or unsurprisingly unfinished (Lost in La Mancha; It’s All True; the upcoming Death of “Superman Lives”). Either way, there’s usually good reason to isolate all that drama for a separately (or solely) released feature-length work.

In the case of Unmade in China, the aim seems to have always been to cover a catastrophe. Director Gil Kofman (The Memory Thief) had already gone to the city of Xiamen to make the movie Case Sensitive, a YouTube-inspired thriller scripted by an American writer and intended for Hollywood but which wound up sold to Chinese film producers. They hired Kofman and a few others from the States to maintain a certain prestige appeal, and the whole thing immediately became a nightmare for the transplanted crew. Soon afterward, Tanner Barklow (producer of recent Oscar nominee The Invisible War) flew over to help chronicle the whole experience.

What the two captured is partly a classic fish out of water farce crossed with an absurdist, Murphy’s Law sort of comedy about moviemaking. Basically, the reality aspect renders silly fictions like Living in Oblivion and For Your Consideration near obsolete – or at least takes the satire part out of the Hollywood satire genre (never mind that with this film we’re beyond Hollywood). Kofman deals with numerous cast and cinematographer replacements, script rewrites that tend to lose more than 50% of details in translation and include unacceptable scenes such as one involving dog eating, and many other ridiculous obstacles that would be even more hilarious if they weren’t true.

The documentary’s title might imply that Case Sensitive was never completed. But it just comes from a joke Kofman tells about how it’s often said that a film is made three times – in the writing, in the actual production and then in the editing – while in China a film is unmade three times, with the same division. In fact, two versions of Case Sensitive were finished, and this leads to some of the more priceless moments in Unmade in China. Along with the expected dealings with culture clashes and bureaucracy complications, there’s ultimately some fresh and amusing points made regarding the issues of final cut privilege and film piracy.

Seeing this should deter any director from taking a gig with a Chinese movie studio (probably for the payment troubles alone), even if at times it might seem fun to see and experience just how bizarre and overflowing with irony the whole situation could get (are there thrill seekers of the mind that find threat of aneurysms to be adventurous?). For those not given such an opportunity, though, there are circumstances and lessons to be learned that are more universal to the field of film production. Of course, nothing in the U.S. is that relatable to the element of censorship in the People’s Republic (however, you can find similar suppression in parts of the Middle East, as is witnessed in Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I).

If only Unmade in China were as wholly engaging as its content deserves. It’s another case of a documentary simply relaying a compelling story instead of constructing a great narrative out of compelling events. Much of the storytelling is merely lifted from a screening Q&A for Case Sensitive where Kofman exposits to the theater crowd the gist of its production problems. We do see some of them unfold, too, and its matter-of-fact observational approach is fine in a pragmatic sense. The lunacy needs no embellishment. Still, once Kofman becomes frustrated to the point of boredom, we easily join him, and then when he finds a book on Hemingway’s stint as a spy in China and allows it to inspire a fantasy that turns to paranoia, it’s hard for us not to wish the doc played more on the espionage conceit.

Kofman and Barklow offer up a timely documentary here, one that’s more significant with every report we get about China’s film industry and Hollywood’s expansion into that territory (and it does seem like daily reportage, the latest of which involves the growth of the horribly named Oriental DreamWorks). It’s an important addition to the subgenre of nonfiction films about film productions, a category that is also notably increasing, sadly with the focus being on cursed or calamitous projects. Eventually (or now, if this is something that already exists), Unmade in China will have to be included on the list of docs that are mandatory viewing for all film students. Perhaps it’s better that it’s not more entertaining, too, so that it functions sufficiently as a warning.

The Upside: Amusing for its stranger than fiction account of uncanny incidences and characters, and hilarious for where it goes with a look at Chinese film piracy.

The Downside: Suffers aesthetically, and at times the amusement slows down as we wait for new misfortunes to come along.

On the Side: While Case Sensitive is not officially available in the U.S., you can very easily (and appropriately) find an English-subtitled copy on YouTube if you try.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.