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'Unmade in China': Making a movie turns into a comedy of errors ★★★ 1/2

Movies about the difficulty of making movies shouldn't work at all, really. The potential for navel-gazing is immense. The narcissistic insularity of the topic is potentially galling. Yet the best of these films, especially in the documentary realm, turn their subjects' travails into the stuff of universal Job-like pain, suffering and human comedy.

Take "Unmade in China," a delightful tale of filmmaking woe now in a weeklong run at Facets. It follows the making of a movie in the city of Xiamen, in the southeast section of the third-largest filmmaking nation on the planet (behind India and the U.S.). The particulars of the project are unusual. Struggling LA-based director Gil Kofman found himself working, for hire, in Xiamen on a low-budget thriller titled "Case Sensitive," about a flirty, deceiving YouTube sensation's terrifying relationship with a psychopathic fan. It was originally written in English and set in America. But this was a Chinese production hiring on an American director, rejiggering the script for a non-English-speaking cast. Kofman was to work through a translator, on the fly, under tough conditions. Still: How bad could it be?

Pretty bad, according to this cinematic diary co-directed by Tanner King Barklow and Kofman. Shooting a genre thriller under the thumb of the local communist officials entails the wining and dining of said officials, along with gifts of cartons of cigarettes in exchange for filmmaking permits. "Case Sensitive" wasn't a Chinese/U.S. co-production; it was all Chinese, and therefore, according to our droll host Kofman, all adversity.

Script changes included transforming the script's key murder weapon from a gun or a knife into something less offensive: a bike tire pump. Nothing worked as planned. The cinematographer, a woman, was fired early in the shoot, essentially for being female. Kofman, the exasperated American abroad, soldiered on, shooting in the rainy season.

This isn't "Burden of Dreams" or "Hearts of Darkness," to name two major docs about the torturous process of creating Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," respectively. "Unmade in China" is more humble — essentially a "This American Life"-styled comedy of errors. Thanks to Kofman's genial though often panicky on-camera presence, which is utterly disarming, the movie skips along, noting each little soul-killing defeat as well as the occasional sliver of triumph. It's great fun. And it has something to say about the way business gets done these days, at least this business, at least in what the Xiamen tourism bureau calls "the Miami of China."

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Unmade in China' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
(some language)
Running time: 1:30
Opens: Friday at Facets Cinematheque

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