Inseparable (2011) Movie Review

Daniel Wu and Kevin Spacey in Inseparable (2011) Movie Image

Screened at the 2012 Terracotta Far East Film Festival.

“Inseparable” is somewhat of a landmark event, being one of the first Chinese films to feature a bona fide Hollywood star in a lead role. The actor in question is Kevin Spacey, who shares top billing with top Chinese talent Daniel Wu (recently in “Don’t Go Breaking my Heart” and “Overheard 2”) and actress Beibi Gong (“The Detective 2”, “Connected”). The film was directed by Dayyan Eng, known for the romantic comedy “Waiting Alone” and the shorts “Bus 44” and “East 22nd Street”, and has a further international flavour thanks to the presence of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, a long time collaborator of Luc Besson, having worked with him on the likes of “Leon”, “The Fifth Element” and “The Lady”.

Daniel Wu plays Li, a young man who works as an artificial limbs designer and who is going through a difficult time, his parents having died in a car crash, his wife Pang (Beibi Gong) having suffered a miscarriage, and his boss putting pressure on him to lie at an upcoming hearing about a malfunctioning product. The film begins with him attempting suicide in his apartment, only to be interrupted by neighbour Chuck (Kevin Spacey, an American ex-pat who apparently makes a living by playing the stock market. The two forge a close bond, and Chuck pushes Li to overcome his problems and renew his relationship with Pang through a variety of odd methods, including dressing up as superheroes and trying to take down corporate criminals.

Beibi Gong and Daniel Wu in Inseparable (2011) Movie Image

There’s no question that “Inseparable” receives a real boost from the presence of Spacey. Even though the actor never really steps outside his usual sarcastic comedy comfort zone, he’s on decent form, and there’s something almost startling in seeing an actual proper western actor in a Chinese film rather than the usual dragged in off the street amateurs – it’s worth noting that the film also features character actor Peter Stormare (“Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”) in a small though amusing villainous role. Crucially, Spacey and Daniel Wu have a real onscreen chemistry, and the film works best as a sort of buddy comedy, especially since both seem to having a pretty good time. Wu is on likeable form, acting partly in the English language, and does a reasonable job of carrying the film, if not quite managing the emotional depth to make the film actually moving.

Even without the presence of Spacey, the film has quite a different and more international feel, thanks in no small part to Thierry Arbogast’s excellent, crisp cinematography, which is markedly less static than seen in many Chinese productions. At the same time, Dayyan Eng is clearly still aiming the film at the domestic market, and though the film’s general themes of work and life troubles are universal, it’s rooted in Chinese culture and values, dealing specifically with corruption and issues of tainted medicine, and referencing Maoist era hero Lei Feng. On this score, Eng does quite well, and the film is one of the few to successfully employ more western techniques whilst maintaining a Chinese feel.

On the downside, the film is a pretty uneven affair, with an uncertain and shifting tone, Eng seeming to be unsure whether he wanted to make a satirical comedy, feel good buddy film or a serious depiction of mental illness. Although wisely the film gets at least one of its major (and painfully obvious) twists out of the way early on, it’s at times needlessly convoluted and manipulative, and this does undermine both the laughs and the drama. This is especially true during scenes of Li experiencing visions and hallucinations, which though interesting in a left field kind of way, see the film taking an odd and confusing approach to its subject matter.

This doesn’t wholly derail the film, and as long as the viewer doesn’t think too hard, “Inseparable” is enjoyable and big-hearted, especially when Dayyan Eng focuses on gags rather than meaningfulness. Worth seeing for its fun central pairing of Spacey and Wu, though the film fails to attain the relevance it seems to be striving for, it’s nevertheless entertaining enough in its own way.

Dayyan Eng (director) / Dayyan Eng (screenplay)
CAST: Kevin Spacey … Chuck
Daniel Wu … Li
Beibi Gong … Pang
Ni Yan … Ms. Yang
Peter Stormare … Richard
Kenneth Tsang … Mr. Wang
Mo Zhang … Sun Biao

Buy Inseparable on DVD