Taiwanese-born, Stateside-reared, Beijing-based helmer Dayyan Eng makes a clear if uneven attempt to craft a pic that’s both China- and America-friendly with “Inseparable,” a comic examination of a man’s turning-30 crisis. Teaming Kevin Spacey and Hong Kong heartthrob Daniel Wu, the pic is set to preem in China later this year, and based on Wu’s huge fanbase there and the allure of the first Sino-funded pic to feature a Hollywood star, B.O. figures to be respectable. However, despite the prevalence of English dialogue, Western auds will be more reticent to embrace a film that sees Spacey retreading his earlier roles.
Filmed in Guangzhou, this droll if overlong follow-up to Eng’s feature bow, “Waiting Alone,” revolves around a suicidal prosthetics-company engineering executive and the provocative Westerner who instructs him on how to perk up and enjoy life. The setup brims with comic potential, but the pic begins to drag after a vital twist is revealed at the three-quarter mark.
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Thirty-year-old Li (Wu) is slipping a noose around his neck when he’s interrupted by an insistent knock at the door of his apartment. In walks Chuck (Spacey), an inquisitive, sardonic Westerner who admits to having poor Mandarin skills; noticing the dangling hangman’s knot, Chuck probes the young man’s emotional state.
Blithely hinting that he’s a hitman for the CIA yet keeping his own motivations and true identity a secret, Chuck offers Li a strategy to loosen up and regain control of his life, emphasizing the importance of expressing hostility and taking a stand. As a first step toward helping Li feel more fulfilled, Chuck gets the exec to slash the tires of an annoying co-worker (Zhang Mo). Feeling emboldened and righteous, Li is inspired to help a poor street vendor against a raging, self-important businessman (Zhao Xiaoxing) who settles arguments with a crowbar. This vigorous new approach to life not only improves Li’s self-esteem but also augurs well for his moribund relationship with his moody journalist wife, Pang (Gong Beibi).
Realizing the lower classes need a hero to defend their interests, Li takes this notion to absurd (and possibly censor-confronting) extremes by constructing a superhero costume out of sportswear. Enjoying the idea, Chuck dons a much classier Batman-like cape and cowl. On the prowl for crimes to fight, the two expose and humiliate a corrupt Western businessman (Peter Stormare), an adventure that not only brings Li to the attention of police, but also introduces a key aspect of his relationship with Chuck that spins the tale in another direction.
From here, the narrative attempts to segue gently into a deeper, more somber mode, but is unable to relinquish the comic tone established earlier. Result devolves into an odd pastiche of “Fight Club,” Clara Law’s ethereal Daniel Wu starrer “Like a Dream,” and self-help psychology.
Pic’s major asset is Wu’s buoyant ability to move seamlessly between comic and solemn modes. Given the film’s tricky tonal tightrope, Spacey’s talent for razor-sharp delivery and sly emotional nuance could have come in handy, but the thesp gives a lazy, uncommitted variation on a persona he and various casting directors have long milked dry. Once Chuck’s secret is revealed, his character becomes even less interesting, and the script’s weaknesses more obvious.
Eng directs with an efficient anonymity that gets the story across. Thierry Arbogast’s grainy, washed-out lensing may have been intended to reflect Li’s often depressive state but serves to drain the pic of some much-needed life; only a rooftop garden Chuck tends and Li’s garish costume provide bursts of color. Other tech credits are fine.