It’s a good thing Gil Kofman and Tanner King Barklow have such a compelling and eye-opening story to tell in Unmade in China, as it makes the more problematic elements of their approach somewhat easier to swallow. The film follows Kofman’s trials and tribulations as he attempts to make a film in China under the watchful—to put it mildly—eye of the notoriously controlling Chinese government. Barklow and Kofman structure Unmade in China around the old adage that a film is made three times: in the writing, the shooting, and the editing. Divided into three parts (“Unmade By Writing,” “Unmade By Shooting,” and “Unmade By Editing”), the filmmakers methodically portray how the Chinese government ends up turning the film—a cyber-thriller called Case Sensitive—into something way different from its original conception. This is far more than a case of mere culture clash, however, as quickly becomes evident when lead actors are recast without Gil’s knowledge, pages of the script are secretly rewritten, and the government reneges on its contract and withholds money from Gil, among other headaches.
Certainly, the film exerts a topical and cultural fascination, with China becoming such a world superpower that scrutiny of this kind toward its repressive stance within its borders has only heightened in recent years. Unmade in China, however, holds one’s interest on a more universal level as well. As Barklow details Kofman’s desperation in trying salvage not only glimmers of his original vision, but also a sense of dignity as he’s forced to adapt to the obstacles thrown his way, the film becomes a tribute to the ruthless spirit that drives people to realize an artistic vision in even the most adverse of conditions.
If only Unmade in China’s perspective on it all didn’t seem so narcissistic in an ugly-American sort of way. Right at the beginning of the film, Kofman is introduced being interviewed by Chinese press on a red carpet, and afterward he says, in an aside straight to the camera, that “the food is good in the States…and the billing is on time.” Throughout much of the film, Kofman exudes a similar lack of curiosity about this unfamiliar culture, a “me-first” perspective that manifests itself in smart-alecky asides and the occasional exasperated shouting match. Don’t expect Barklow to ever challenge him or any of the other American crew members on their cultural insensitivities, either; it’s established early on that these people are good friends, and that, when the going gets rough during this shoot, the endlessly sympathetic Barklow is the only other person in which the increasingly whiny Kofman can confide.
But it’s difficult to imagine any other way these people would react in such a situation—stuck in a foreign country having their creative freedoms taken away from them one by one. Not even its problematically touristic gaze is enough to derail the fascination of this absurd tale’s many nightmarish twists and turns. If you’re willing to overlook the blatant outsider’s perspective, Unmade in China works as a gripping film about filmmaking with a globally topical hook.