US/China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 96 mins.
Director: Wu Shixian 伍仕贤 [Dayyan Eng].
The lead chemistry helps to sustain this rather uneven Mephistophelian comedy.
A city in southern China, the present day. Li Yue (Wu Yanzu), a prosthetic-limb designer, is pressured at work, has bills mounting up at home, and has an increasingly crabby wife, investigative TV reporter Pang (Gong Beibi), who’s always wrapped up in her work. One day he decides to hang himself at home, but is interrupted by an American ex-pat neighbour, Chuck (Kevin Spacey), who lives in the flat above and has come by to introduce himself. Next day, he again bumps into Chuck, who shows Li Yue his secret garden on the rooftop of their apartment block and encourages him to start thinking freely, to liberate his mind. The company Li Yue works for is soon to go public, but is about to roll out a new product that has a serious technical glitch. Realising he could be blamed, and thus has nothing to lose, Li Yue throws in his lot with Chuck, who devises a multi-phase plan to liberate his mind so he can find his true calling. All goes well initially, with Li Yue in a position to give up his job. But then his doctor diagnoses him with BPD (brief psychotic disorder) and Chuck turns out to be not all he appears.
Six years after his very likeable Waiting Alone 独自等待 (2005) – a rom-com made when the genre was hardly established in Mainland cinema – Taiwan-born, Beijing-based filmmaker Wu Shixian 伍仕贤 [Dayyan Eng] finally comes out of the traps with his second feature, the black comedy/fantasy Inseparable 形影不离. Way more ambitious, and ultimately less successful, Inseparable is an uneven ride that gets by on the chemistry between its three main players, especially Wu Yanzu 吴彦祖 [Daniel Wu] and Kevin Spacey as pupil and mentor, plus a fanciful comic tone that’s pretty much sustained throughout. Its main weakness is that, after a lively and entertaining first half that ends with a major twist, the movie never really recovers the same smoothness or momentum, trying to be too many things at the same time (comedy, drama, love story, moral compass) and lacking a clear objective.
Billing itself as the first, wholly China-financed production with a major US star, the film makes natural use of both Spacey and chunks of American dialogue. There’s no endemic reason for the anti-hero’s mentor to be American (rather than Chinese) but the Mephistophelian story actually works better that way, with the leaps of imagination easier to accept when set in motion by a pushy foreigner and the director himself able to stir lots of extra cultural references (such as US superheroes) into the mix. Set in the present day, and in an entrepreneurial Chinese city – never named but actually Guangzhou – the film shows no sense of strain in its “internationalism” and, thanks to Chinese-American Wu Shixian’s own bi-culturalism, most of the humour, both verbal and visual, crosses cultural lines.
Looking serene and/or playful, Spacey is just right as pushy neighbour Chuck, and throws himself into the role (“Let the de-arseholing begin!”). But the major surprise is the natural chemistry he manages to establish with Wu Yanzu – an actor who doesn’t bond easily with co-stars on screen – especially in the first half. That seems as much due to the director who, like his dialogue which sits easily in both Chinese and western actors’ mouths, shows an almost actorly talent for sketching relationships on screen in a succinct and likeable way. In the only major female role – excluding a cameo by Yan Ni 闫妮 as an office vamp – Gong Beibi 龚蓓苾 (Waiting Alone) fits well between Spacey and Wu, and comes over strongest in the moments of larky comedy. The only real acting dud is Peter Stormare, in a sequence that’s clumsily staged and isn’t at all funny.
Visual effects are generally okay – and in one instance, involving some wings, suitably hey-wow. On a technical level, however, the picture is let down by its over-insistent music score and, in the 35mm print screened at the Busan premiere, unattractively muddy colours – disappointing, considering it was shot by ace French d.p. Thierry Arbogast (The Lady, 2011).
Presented by Fantawild Films (CN). Produced by Colordance Pictures (US).
Script: Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng]. Photography: Thierry Arbogast. Editing: Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng]. Music: Wang Zongxian [Nathan Wang], Eric Lee Harper. Production design: Zhuang Zhiliang [Thomas Chong]. Costume design: Xu Jianshu [Lawrence Xu]. Sound: Zhang Yang.
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Chuck), Wu Yanzu [Daniel Wu] (Li Yue), Gong Beibi (Pang, Li Yue’s wife), Yan Ni (Yang, Li Yue’s boss), Peter Stormare (Richard), Zeng Jiang [Kenneth Tsang] (Wang), Zhang Mo (Sun Biao/Valentino, Li Yue’s work colleague), Han Tongsheng (Lin, police officer), Wang Yanhui (male beancurd seller), Bai Xueyun (female beancurd seller), Zhai Xiaoxing (man with crowbar), Zhao Ningyu (doctor), Wu Shixian [Dayyan Eng] (neighbour), Lisa S. (neighbour’s girlfriend), Wu Chao (informer), Lin Sen (tricycle peasant), Xiao Qun (driver in car crash), Li Guoliang (company driver), Gan Lulu (Richard’s secretary), Gong Shanni (policewoman), Ma Yuehui (TV reporter), Sun Meng (disco girl), Wang Kejia (disco guy), Chen Haoxian (security guard), Liang Xiaopeng (prison guard), Meng Weiming (salesman), Zhang Qianghua (company vice-president), Zhang Chengxuan, Du Hai (Li Yue’s colleagues), Wang Xiaoyang, Ye Feng (Pang’s work colleagues), Ma Ting (chief news editor), Pan Guojie (handicapped man).
Premiere: Pusan Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), 8 Oct 2011.
Release: US, 12 Jun 2012 (VOD); China, 4 May 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 4 Nov 2011.)