Kevin Spacey is latest A-lister to take on role in Chinese film
BEIJING -- Christian Bale did it in “The Flowers of War.” Hugh Jackman did it in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” Now it’s Kevin Spacey’s turn to appear in a Chinese movie featuring dialogue in Mandarin and English.
The two-time Academy Award winner hit China’s big screens this past weekend in the off-beat dramedy “Inseparable,” directed by Beijing-based Dayyan Eng.
“Inseparable” starts with an attempted suicide by a depressed man named Li Yue (played by the Hong Kong-American heartthrob Daniel Wu in his first major English-speaking role). Every day Li dons a suit and tie and heads to his suffocating office job at a prosthetic-limb company in an unnamed Chinese city. (The movie was filmed in Guangzhou.)
Li’s boss is corrupt, his wife, Pang (an investigative television reporter played by Gong Beibi), is always away, and he is recovering from a past trauma. But just as Li is about to hang himself from his living room ceiling, he is interrupted by his brash American neighbor Chuck (Kevin Spacey).
Together, they head out into the city in homemade superhero outfits to right the wrongs in a country suffering from widespread fraud and corruption, a vast wealth gap and a frustrated, angry populace. The wise-cracking expat Chuck proves to be both Li’s savior and nemesis.
“Flowers of War,” directed by Zhang Yimou, was touted as China’s most expensive film ever. The story of a foreigner who helps save Chinese schoolgirls trapped during the Japanese invasion of Nanjing, it grossed $95 million in China, making it the top-earning Chinese film of 2011.
“Inseparable” is a very different beast. It was made on a budget of $4 million to $6 million and financed by Fantawild Film, a Chinese company; this is the first film that Fantawild has fully invested in.
Initially, Eng envisioned a Chinese-language film. But when talks with a Hong Kong actor fell through, he switched to a half-English, half-Chinese script. “I tweaked the script a bit after realizing it could totally work [to have an American character] without it compromising the story,” the director explained. With Spacey having signed on in early 2009 (shooting took place in 2010), "Inseparable" is billing itself as the first fully-financed Chinese film to recruit a big American star.
“I think because [Spacey] was already adventurous to begin with, that was one of the big appeals of him taking this project, to work with a completely different environment and different cast and crew. He’s very open to stuff, he’s curious,” Eng said.
China’s box-office revenue is growing by leaps and bounds; the country this year has surpassed Japan to become the second-biggest market in the world, behind the United States. In 2011, Chinese films accounted for just over half of all ticket sales.
“There is no doubt that a great deal of finance and talent is going to be coming to China in the next decade,” Spacey told the Chinese news media. “And I have every intention of returning and working again, both as an actor but I would also love to produce films in China.”
“Inseparable” is smart and sassy and even if the film can be somewhat of an uneven experience, carries its international cast lightly. Eng’s bilingual background (the Taiwanese-born American also wrote and produced the film) has given him the tools to handle his cast and subject matter with ease while avoiding any focus on a hackneyed “East-meets-West” plot line. Fast-paced banter in Mandarin and English could be disastrous, but it is pulled off without sacrificing the movie’s dark humor.
The film follows Eng’s debut 2005 feature, “Waiting Alone,” a Chinese romantic comedy that became a surprise cult hit. As a former student at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, he is largely seen as a local filmmaker. As such, “Inseparable” is aimed squarely at a Chinese audience, but U.S. distribution is to be announced soon.
Central to the story are the fake, dangerous products peddled by individuals and companies in China wanting to make a quick buck at the expense of the public. This takes a personal twist when Li’s boss asks him to cover up production of a faulty prosthetic limb as the company goes public. Disgust with himself, mixed with a feeling of utter helplessness, prompts Li to don a costume and battle injustices around the city with Chuck as his sidekick.
The story will probably resonate in China after incidents such as the 2008 melamine milk scandal, which killed six infants and left 300,000 seriously ill. Above all, “Inseparable” explores the pressures heaped on China’s “post-’80s” generation, whose members are battling stress in work and relationships.
Reviews on Chinese microblogs have been favorable.
“A Hollywood-class screenwriter, a performance by the best actor Oscar winner, a rare Chinese movie,” wrote one user named Fu on Sina Weibo. “Just the appearance of Kevin Spacey is a miracle!” Another user agreed: “Kevin is a massive surprise.”
Eng hopes that Spacey’s involvement will open doors for American moviegoers to watch and enjoy a Chinese film. Beyond this he wants to make Chinese audiences, who are largely attracted to big American blockbusters, think.
“A lot of people aren’t used to this type of a film, especially in China,” Eng said. “That was our intention. We wanted to do something that was a little bit more daring, more provoking, to get people talking in China.” With Spacey involved that -- at the very least -- he has achieved.
-- Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
Photos: Kevin Spacey and Daniel Wu in "Inseparable." Credit: Fantawild Film Investment