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American helmer banks on China

Eng works system for 'Inseparable'

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA — With all the buzz surrounding China’s potential as an entertainment business giant, some filmmakers are not waiting for East to meet West.

Beijing-based American helmer Dayyan Eng believes his experience working within the mainland Chinese system has helped him to succeed in the biz’s fastest growing major market.

“The film industry in China is still growing and changing, but I’ve never really had that many problems with the system, because I came out of that environment and I started my career in China, so in a way that’s all I know,” Eng says. “I know how to play within the rules of the game here.”

His “Inseparable” made its international bow at the Busan Film Festival. The pic stars Kevin Spacey — the first Hollywood thesp to appear in an all-Chinese-financed film; Christian Bale followed, in Zhang Yimou’s “Flowers of War.”

Eng is cosmopolitan. He was born in Taiwan, grew up in Seattle, Melbourne and Macau, before moving to Beijing in his college years, dividing his education between the U. of Washington and the Beijing Film Academy.

Eng combines his experience from film school in the U.S. with what he has learned in China. All his movies have been fully Chinese productions, although his crew is international.

“There are a lot of new companies and new money, which is a double-edged sword. If you have good projects, it gets easier, and if you’re already established in the industry, it’s easier,” he says. But all that new money threatens to fund too many films, flooding the market and undermining quality — something the West experienced in the middle part of the past decade.

Eng’s budgets are small, on par with what U.S. indies work with — $5 million and under — although he wouldn’t be drawn on specifics. Unlike many films being made in China these days, Eng is looking at contemporary reality and not historical dramas. He believes that Chinese auds are tiring of chopsocky epics and there’s a growing space for social dramas.

Eng says he wrote “Inseparable” to be a Chinese story but with a global point of view. Spacey plays Chuck, an American expatriate in the southern city of Guangzhou — China’s third-largest city and an important industrial center and port. He lives next door to a down-on-his-luck white-collar professional, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Kevin Wu. Chuck tries to help Kevin turn his life around.

“(‘Inseparable’) deals with the issues of taking on the big man and greedy corporations,” Eng says, “and it didn’t matter where Chuck came from. It felt like a natural step for me to see if we (could) get a Hollywood actor for the part, since I’m bilingual and bicultural.”

Wu was already attached, and once Spacey saw the script, he came onboard as well.

Eng’s had a history of landing top talent for his films. His previous pic, 2005’s “Waiting Alone,” a contempo drama about a group of well-off Beijing hipsters, featured Chow Yun-fat, and starred Xia Yu, Li Bingbing and Gong Beibi, who also stars in “Inseparable,” as Kevin’s wife. Eng’s next pic, a heist/action movie, is aiming to shoot in Hong Kong next year.

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