restricted access Unmade in China dir. and written by Tanner King Barklow and Gil Kofman (review)
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Unmade in China (2013)
Directed and Written by Tanner King Barklow and Gil Kofman
Distributed by 7th Art Releasing
90 minutes

What is it like to shoot a film in China, particularly when the film project uses a director and producer brought from the United States? Film production is arduous work in and of itself, requiring the smooth functioning and coordination of different units to complete the film and achieve the desired artistic vision. The constant presence of censorship in China complicates this process, however, introducing the looming threat of codes and restrictions that could throw the production into disarray, limit bold social statements and artistic explorations, or stall the whole project at any instant, leaving the filmmakers’ vision unrealized. These limits are often cited as a reason for the Chinese film industry’s stunted growth and failure to foster creativity or match the standards achieved by other world film industries.

The tension created by these limitations and uncertainty is explored in Unmade in China—a film made by an American director and producer, hired by their Chinese counterparts to document the process of making the Chinese psychological thriller Case Sensitive. The film demonstrates the disappointment and frustration that censorship brings to the filmmakers, but also offers glimpses of the rare moments of joy they find in creative cooperation, and their exultation with the eventual—and unexpected—resolution of the project.

The making of Case Sensitive was nerve-racking: The script needed constant rewriting, props (including the murder weapon specified in the original script) had to be replaced because of censorship, an actress appeared, unannounced, to be the female lead, bureaucracy and logistics imposed excruciating delays during shooting, and scenes had to be re-edited due to restrictions and taboos. Unmade in China documents the three major segments of the production process—scripting, shooting, and editing—as they were constantly reworked due to censorship, restrictions, and other contingencies. It acquaints viewers with the complexities of reconciling disparate viewpoints and coping with the density of cultural translation and the differences between Chinese and American filmmaking styles and conventions. It is also peppered with the filmmaker’s exasperation at the project being constantly disrupted, as well as at his inability to gain unconstrained and full articulation of his vision.

Unmade in China illustrates the awkwardness of filmmaking, and the marginalization of filmmakers in China not only through its narrative and imagery, but also through the bilingual title and subtitles, which appear to have been created using Google Translate. The Chinese characters used in the subtitles are, in most cases, non-standard expressions that neither follow colloquial conventions nor conform to standard grammatical structures. These subtitles, in some cases, force the viewer to refer to the English expression in order to determine their exact meaning. This suggests the internationality of the intended audience and, in addition, the unconsidered hegemonic role of English. The use of bilingual subtitles also demonstrates the international nature of Case Sensitive itself, and by extension that of this corollary documentary. Above all, however, it emphasizes the interstitial and messy nature of cross-cultural production and the impossibility of equivalency in cultural translation, particularly in light of English logocentrism, with English expressions providing reference for Chinese subtitles. The intractability of cultural differences is evident here in its departures from international filmmaking standards and the sheer incomprehensibility of certain practices and conventions. In this way, the filmmaker uses the Chinese culture’s most symbolic artifact, its ideographs, as a basis for gentle mockery.

The process of filmmaking depicted in Unmade in China—unmaking the original script, re-working the cinematography, and editing segments to meet the specific circumstances of China—allows the American filmmakers to record the hustle and bustle of Chinese life and the country’s robust economy. Raw footage of Xiamen’s vibrant sights and sounds—random street scenes of people entertaining, relaxing, and socializing, all rendered in fast motion— provide an unmediated vision of a country on the rise, with its vibrant economy, as well as its many attendant ills and deformities. The images of the roaring Chinese city [End Page 80] with its indecipherable crowds, intended to symbolize...