Unmade in China
The Chinese have a wonderfully pragmatic take on the irritating Western tendency to vow “110%” commitment to a project. Chinese executives laid their cards on the table from the outset for American director Gil Kofman, the director of febrile thriller CASE SENSITIVE, declaring that they intended to give 70% to the project.
Easy to dismiss as quaint candour, or to infer an “under-promise and over-deliver” approach – but in retrospect, perhaps the hapless filmmaker should have read between the lines and wondered just how much chicanery can be crammed into 30% of the production. The behind-the-scenes documentary UNMADE IN CHINA gives a funny, honest insight into the whole debacle, and shows us that sometimes you should look the gift horse in the mouth. Sometimes you should also throw etiquette to the wind and check to see whether the gift horse has flossed.
The People’s Republic was teetering on the cusp of a web revolution hitherto hampered by Communism and censorship.
Written by George Richards, and based on a story developed with Kofman, the screenplay for CASE SENSITIVE was inspired by one of the internet’s first video diarists, LonelyGirl15, who was famously exposed as a fake. The story takes the concept of attention-seeking web-mummery and runs with it to levels of extreme jeopardy. The original story was based in America but Kofman and Richards initiated a transposition to China. The novelty of social networking was quickly waning in the West, whereas the People’s Republic was teetering on the cusp of a web revolution hitherto hampered by Communism and censorship. “CASE SENSITIVE resonated more in China than here in the States,” says Kofman. “So that’s where we went to film it, in Chinese, with some pretty famous Chinese actors, before returning back here to California to edit, again in Chinese, although that ended up being less fortuitous than the directing part.”
Documentary filmmaker and close friend Tanner King Barklow started shooting “behind the scenes” footage shortly after Kofman arrived for pre-production negotiations, and in the early days, his immortalisation of on-set foibles was nothing more than a distraction. “But once the film got going,” says Kofman, “I became a bit schizoid and wanted to do both. Often the UNMADE IN CHINA documentary was a sort of consolation prize for everything going wrong in the film.”
Kofman arrived at the “strangely depressing” port town of Xiamen eagerly anticipating a healthy working partnership with the Chinese production company. “However, when we arrived for pre-production we were warned that they had taken the liberty of making a few cultural changes for Chinese audiences without notifying us,” says Kofman. Nothing major, he was assured, but when he attended the first production meeting, and entered into discussion with production manager, scheduler, designer and set builders, it became apparent that the script had already reached “Version 7″ without Kofman or Richards’ input, and changes had been made which extended beyond cultural adaptation. Confused and chagrined, Kofman attempted to nip the problem in the bud. UNMADE IN CHINA documents the fact that, unlike James Cameron, he was not afraid to stamp his feet. “I insisted that we adjourn directly, right then and there, until I was able to receive the most current copy of the script with a line-by-line translation from Mandarin back into English.”
…what Hitler did to Poland was landscaping compared to this…
Back at the Yo Yo Hotel, Kofman and his producer Seth Scher pored over “Version 7″ of the script. “I was positively aghast,” says Kofman, “at what I found there – our script had been hijacked under the aegis of small cultural changes.” In UNMADE IN CHINA Kofman acts out one of the stranger alterations. The original script has the heroine’s stalker assassinate her goldfish – “Version 7″ sees the goldfish replaced by a puppy, which is not only executed with a ball peen hammer but then force-fed to the hog-tied heroine – a ghastly, alienating homage to Titus Andronicus which had certainly not been endorsed by Kofman or co-writer Richards. “The changes were audacious and insulting – what Hitler did to Poland was landscaping compared to this – their efforts to rewrite the script wholesale were beyond astonishing,” says Kofman. When Richards saw the mangled script, he kept repeating, “These people have no respect for source material – source material means nothing to these people – have they ever heard of source material?” “Perhaps they were genuinely clueless in their intention,” concedes Kofman, “inadvertently callous in their approach, thinking they might somehow sneak Version 7 past me for some greater good, but it was ultimately disrespectful and damaging”. Other surprises were in store as well as the mutilated script – a downgraded camera package, changes in casting, and dismissal of technical staff who showed too much initiative, or who had the audacity to be young, opinionated women.
Despite the blows he had taken, Kofman bounced back, and his and Barklow’s UNMADE IN CHINA shows a real effort on their part to maintain their integrity and collaborative spirit – albeit with the odd mischievous aside. Although Kofman’s instinct was to flee homeward, he resolved to reel Version 7 back in and try to make it work, to defuse the internecine mistrust and suspicion that had infected the production. “It’s not about me being right”, he urged the crew, “I want you to have the best film possible”. But with the best will in the world, the language of cinema proved to be as much an obstacle as the language of negotiation. Artistically, deviation from the cinematographic equivalent of the missionary position was unthinkable in China: although indie documentaries and art films are made in China, without state backing, they rarely thrive under the strict censorship rules and are often thrown to those barbarians at the gate, international film festivals. “When cameras began to roll,” says Kofman, “an argument was always made to include some kind of close-up for the offscreen voices. The director of photography would be pleading incessantly – Just one shot of her face, and me arguing, But you don’t need to see her, that’s why she’s offscreen! They were very schooled in shot-reverse-shot; whenever I took the camera off the tripod, they were flummoxed. An ominous hush would descend upon the set followed directly by a pitying apprehension.” It was the “China Way” or the highway – and, says Kofman, “you can never possibly learn what’s the China Way.”
“CASE SENSITIVE could have made a lot of money in China, but not the way they had it done.”
The cast and crew, unlike the production team, were largely amiable and willing – in UNMADE IN CHINA, one actor describes Kofman with reserved affection as “fun and knowledgeable”. On the flip side, Barklow gained the trust of a notoriously unwholesome crew member who reveals on camera that he doesn’t trust “bourgeois Hollywood directors” who will never be able to understand the Chinese culture. In a later scene, we see the two fish out of water hurl themselves wholeheartedly into the Chinese cultural film making tradition of karaoke and flirtation with hired honeys, in between shoots. Nevertheless, the final cut of the film is unrecognisable to its original creators – a glossy, lacquered beast, neither one thing nor t’other – and terrified of appearing culturally dowdy or technically dishevelled. “After mangling the film entirely, as if throwing all the footage into a blender for several minutes on crush, they still haven’t made good on their final payment and I’m still owed a large chunk of change.”
So what would he do differently if he could go back and start afresh? “I guess I’d be kind of less gullible and more guileful,” muses Kofman. “I’d know I’d be getting screwed this time – I’d be making similar mistakes but I’d have the money, I’d make an account. I think money makes things very clear. If you’re gonna make a movie like this you’ve got to know what the transaction is.”
The Chinese and American film industries, two of the largest in the world, are both known for producing patriotic, propagandistic, formulaic crowd-pleasers, riddled with sequels and “reboots” and cashing in on the cult of celebrity. However, the success of Chinese cinema has been largely domestic, and the industry has begun to fight for its place on the world stage, and to follow the American example of exporting its ideology to the Western world through the pop culture of cinema. Unable to secure a Chinese director for CASE SENSITIVE, the producers saw in Kofman a trophy director, a hot-shot from Hollywood who could give the film credibility.
However, he also represented everything about American film that they resented – and so Kofman was tarred as crass, vain, eccentric and unpredictable before he had even opened his mouth. Known for his black comedy and cerebral social satire, Kofman’s artistic style was not recognised, let alone welcomed on set, and his protests were consistently met with straw man arguments, circular “discussions” and withdrawal of basic privileges such as communication with decision makers, and money.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of warmth and camaraderie to be seen in UNMADE IN CHINA, in counterpoint to the stony, anonymous influence of the Powers that Be. UNMADE IN CHINA can be seen today as a prescient, even positive portrait of the Chinese film industry in microcosm - the White House announced recently that Chinese Vice President Xi-Jinping had confirmed that China would start welcoming more US movies into the country, and offering more reasonable box office profits to foreign studios. In UNMADE IN CHINA, Kofman and Barklow personify the idiosyncracy and artistic derring-do that is stifled in so many of their Eastern counterparts, and the cross-cultural friendships forged on film augur a rosy revolution for Chinese cinema.
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