EIFF REVIEW: Unmade in China better than the film they ruined

“Unmade in China” is a brilliant documentary about how the Chinese government turned a decent film into a terrible film. It’s not new turf, but it’s rarely covered better than this often absurd examination of what happens when a mild mannered American director tries to make a movie in China.

Both the film and the film about the film will play Monday, Oct. 1 as part of the Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF).

Unmade in China follows L.A. director Gil Kofman in the city of Xiamen, there to produce a new horror-suspense film called Case Sensitive, with documentarian Tanner Barklow along for the ride. The results are hilarious culture clashes that build to an incisive look at why totalitarian states fail and how they decimate the creative process – and it does so without feeling heavy-handed even once.

It becomes obvious early in the film that nothing is going to go well when Kofman, director of the indie favorite The Memory Thief, is informed his cinematographer won’t be able to get her lenses, because the production manager has likely sold them. His first encounter with the bureaucracy that prompts such black market chicanery comes while scouting locations.

“It’s kind of like working with the Mafia,” Kofman observes. “You’re looking for a spot to shoot and you say ‘I like this shopping mall’ and they say ‘Done!’”

But all is not well on the set. People keep rewriting the script, and protections written into the American crews’ contracts are simply being ignored. They’re working six, seven days a week and no one is getting paid. The “translator” on the set rewrites the script multiple times. But in a moment of rare ego, he lets his official “so sorry, so happy” official face down and admits he doesn’t want to listen to the Americans.

“I don’t trust people who live in a bourgeois lifestyle coming from Beverly Hills,” he says. “I don’t trust them because they can never understand a different culture.”

Unfortunately, his English is far less eloquent than that comment suggests – if you’ve ever read the “Japanglish” in early video games, you have an idea of the script issues with which Kofman is suddenly working.

This kind of near-slapstick culture shock continues to extreme degrees … but the film is building to something. And the message, while not sledge-hammered home, is as apparent as the conclusion is surprising and humanistic, satisfying and touching.

Ironically, the loyal party members attached to the film who are busy destroying the vision of Kofman’s creative team are each trying to grab a little bit of control over a part of the film so that they can express their own individual talents. That same attitude filters down to everyday culture, where men have started flirting and caressing each other in public because they see it in Western media …but don’t realize the people in those images are gay.

“They’re copying a fashion image without realizing they’re bootlegging a sexual identity,” one of the Americans wryly notes.

It’s surreal.

Between that and the “censored and re-envisioned by committee” nature of the script, the general paranoia of the locals and the absolutely toxic relationship between the visitors and their hosts – as well as the odd shot of military or security personnel – there are times when viewers old enough might even be a little nostalgic for the Cold War, when hundreds of nations around the world behaved like this.

That’s not an endorsement of rampant capitalism, by the way. We’ve got our own problems over here, including political representation that is increasingly unresponsive and an electorate that is increasingly disconnected, as well as an ethic of greed and might making right that is often out of hand. But Lordy, Lord, we could be so much worse off.

More EIFF 2012 stories:

Review of Case Sensitive

Montage makes all the difference in gringo-out-of-water films

For lack of celebrities, films are the real stars of EIFF

Golf meets orphan movie genre in Becoming Redwood

Trevor Anderson, the Filmmaker That Got Away

Oxygen for the Ears celebrates jazz city that Ken Burns missed

Happy Family shatters fourth wall in brilliant Italian comedy