At some point midway through, Unmade In China stops feeling like a documentary about filmmaking, and starts to feel like a particularly petulant vlog. L.A.-based director Gil Kofman (The Memory Thief) accepted a contract to make his thriller Case Sensitive in China, with Chinese funding and a Chinese cast. He and a friend, documentary producer Tanner King Barklow (The Invisible War), filmed Kofman’s behind-the-scenes struggles with the feature as if remaking Lost In La Mancha about themselves. While Kofman’s project did finally make it to theaters and DVD, it rode the edge of collapse from pre-production to post-, subject to nepotism, censorship, government interference, translation issues, cultural issues, corruption, and simple incompetence. But as Unmade In China gets more personal and less professional, it stops being a primer on filmmaking in a foreign environment with unfamiliar challenges, and becomes an onsite mouthpiece for a pouting, passive-aggressive filmmaker who desperately needs an outlet.
Some of Kofman’s problems could happen with any production, as when a previously scouted shooting location turns out to be too near a noisy construction site, or when his DP and production manager clash, and one is fired. Other issues are more unique to the locale: The script translator entirely rewrites the screenplay, adding tortured puppies and a beach locale, while government officials insist that because of Chinese sensibilities, Kofman can’t use a knife or gun for an onscreen murder. (He’s forced to settle on a bike pump.) After Kofman’s Chinese producers recast his lead actress without consulting him, he groans that he wants to quit, but is staying out of morbid curiosity, like someone on the Titanic hanging back to see what it looks like when such a big ship goes under: “I’m actually, like, sticking around, I’m rubbernecking my own disaster.” Later, he says finishing the film is philanthropy: “Even though I’m making bad art, I’m actually feeding the crew and their families. Seriously. You have to look at it as a sacrifice.”
But rubbernecking quickly gives way to hanging out alone with Barklow, often in a dim hotel room, having depressing, bizarre conversations about their plans for their corpses (Barklow says he’s donating his to necrophiliacs), and how the stress is affecting Kofman physically. (“The tumescent vein that used to live in my penis is now in my forehead.”) Past the midpoint, the editing unfairly suggests that the demoralized Kofman spends more time kvetching with Barklow or swearing incoherently on the phone than on grappling with his out-of-control production. The documentary emphasizes his exasperation and the way he clings to Barklow, the one American who feels his pain, rather than touching on any efforts to combat his problems and save his movie.
Unmade In China is at times bitterly hilarious, as Kofman’s woes compound, as subtitles start identifying his problem crewmembers as “Bane of Existence” and “The Weakest Link,” and as Barklow repeatedly cuts to Kofman at a screening, telling production stories with a distance and wit he lacks during production. But it also wanders inexcusably, following Kofman around the streets of Xiamen (and later, L.A., as he eagerly hunts down Chinese bootlegs of his movie) at dreary length, and devoting too much time to Barklow and Kofman smirking and eye-rolling over their shared plight, setting themselves further above and apart from the issues around them. A sequence comparing one of Kofman’s scenes with the choppy, incoherent Chinese-edited version makes his ambitions clear, and the reasons for his rage clearer. But it’d be easier to sympathize with Unmade In China if it focused more on his art, and less on how he swears and sulks at the people interfering with it.