The Curious Case of INSEPARABLE: Some Notes…

Though the time between my last post and this one was way longer than I originally intended, I’m back, and will discuss what I said I’d discuss: the curious case of Dayyan Eng’s Inseparable 《形影不离》.

In keeping with a tradition I set in my previous and less official blog, I will be providing an abridged version at the end of the post.

(This entry will hopefully help me sort through some of the ideas and observations I have about this film and some of the issues surrounding it, so it might be a little stream-of-consciousness. It’s something I plan to write about more, so please comment generously and let’s learn from each other!)


Inseparable was released in China in the beginning of May, 2012. The film stars Academy Award Winner Kevin Spacey  and Hong Kong superstar/heartthrob Daniel Wu , with a supporting cast that includes Gong BeibiKenneth Tsang, and Peter Stormare.

The film has received some very different opinions, particularly when one compares the Western reviews to those coming out of China. Generally speaking, the polar opposite receptions that I find most fascinating break down something like this:

West: “Been there, seen that.”
China: “This is a completely new direction in Chinese filmmaking.”

Inseparable is a genre-bender set in contemporary Mainland China that is best described as a dark comedy. As far as the purpose of any ‘genre’ is to establish certain expectations within potential audiences, ‘dark comedy’ is probably the way to go. But, aside from elements of humor in otherwise un-humorous situations, the film also shares elements with the psychological thriller, workplace drama, and – perhaps what has proven most problematic for its marketing and reception – the superhero movie. Needless to say, the issue of genre is pretty central to what I’ll be discussing here.

Film marketing relies heavily on the concept of genre to establish connections with and appeal to their audiences. In order to get as many eyes in the theater as possible, one understandably needs to appeal to the greatest number of people. This often leads to the development of multiple trailers and posters with slightly different angles to appeal to different demographics, or the release of trailers that emphasize certain generic aspects of a film over what may be considered its truer essence. Two examples come to mind:

The Twilight franchise: I remember seeing some trailers that emphasized the romantic aspects and others (particularly the higher-budgeted sequels) that emphasized the action and Vampire vs. Vampire and/or Werewolf battle sequences. The hope: that males and females would be drawn to the film.

V for Vendetta was another film whose trailer I remember being somewhat misleading. I had not read the graphic novel at the time, and clearly remember the trailer emphasizing all of the action pieces of the film along with blatant comparisons with The Matrix (the Wachowskis produced V). Essentially, it was being sold as something akin to “the next awesome action movie from the guys who made The Matrix.” As anyone who has seen the movie or read the novel knows, the film actually has relatively little action, the majority of which was shown in the trailer.

Which brings us to Inseparable.

From the start, Inseparable was set up for failure by its marketing approach. Much to the chagrin of the filmmaker, the primary backers of the film – Fantawild – decided to emphasize what they understandably saw as the most commercially lucrative aspect of the film: its “superhero elements.” (Sidenote: Fantawild is apparently an amusement park company trying to get into the film industry, with Inseparable being their first foray). With virtually no experience in film financing and distribution, their mishandling of the film even led to a recent article on (China’s biggest web portal) investigating how they managed to screw up such a ready-made package for success.

Some examples of their poor choices:

  • The movie was available for viewing on domestic flights in China a month before its theatrical release
  • After dragging out the release of the film for over a year, it was finally released ONE DAY before Marvel/Disney’s The Avengers
  • When it was finally available in theaters, it received inconvenient and erratic screening schedules
  • With virtually no publicity budget, the film received no hard advertisements on bus stops or billboards and was therefore shown on very few screens
  • sigh…

Note #1: Chinese Audience Expectations

Dayyan Eng’s previous film Waiting Alone 《独自等待》 was a huge hit in China among the country’s emerging moviegoing population – the urban, disposable-incomed, under-35 crowd. A romantic comedy depicting contemporary Beijing and its protagonists’ social/romantic lives/concerns/anxieties, the film was unlike anything Mainland China had ever seen before. As the movie’s English site attests: “NO KUNG-FU! NO CONCUBINES! NO PEASANTS! 
This is the real urban China you “foreigners” don’t see! More importantly, it was something Chinese audiences were rarely treated to in their theaters: contemporary China, contemporary concerns, contemporary characters.

Inseparable faced a long and troubled road to release. Though shooting and editing had wrapped by early 2011, it did not receive theatrical release until the middle of 2012. With Eng’s prominent presence on Weibo (aka Chinese Twitter), he was able to maintain his fans’ interest in the film by releasing more news about it, media interviews from festival screenings, etc. With the big hit that was Waiting Alone, many fans were understandably expecting another light-hearted and witty romantic comedy.

Moreover, the first trailers and posters that were released did not do the film justice, choosing to focus on the superhero/buddy-comedy elements instead of the truer essence of the film: the current pressures and anxieties faced by the thirty-something generation in Mainland China along with important issues such as psychological traumas, tainted tofu, and harmful prenatal vitamins.

No matter what their expectations, most of the Chinese movie-going population does not share the Hollywood/world movie history knowledge and exposure experienced by most Americans. As such, Inseparable – much like Waiting Alone – does reveal a completely new direction in domestic Mainland Chinese production, accomplishing several firsts on various levels, including:

  • First fully domestically funded film featuring a major Hollywood star (a feat NOT accomplished by Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War, as much as that film’s marketing might want you to believe that)
  • First dark comedy of this nature in China
  • First Chinese film to consistently switch between English and Chinese dialogue seamlessly; if you’ve seen any Chinese film with some English dialogue, you know how incredibly awkward it can appear, both in terms of word choice as well as pacing
  • While the funding was all domestic, the cast and crew was truly international: writer/director Eng begin half Chinese, half American; American/London-based Spacey; American raised, China-based Daniel Wu; French cinematographer and frequent Luc Besson collaborator Thierry Arbogast; you get the idea.

Note #2: American Audience Reactions

Although the film has not been officially released in the US, it has already received some English-language reviews through outlets such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, mainly from its screening at Korea’s Pusan Film Festival. Many of the reviews take on the angle described above, denigrating it for covering the tired and well-trod path of other wannabe-superhero movies like Kick-Ass and describing Spacey’s acting as a rehash of many of his previous characters.

These criticisms seem unfair and unjustified. These reviewers are speaking strictly from the point of view of Hollywood and Hollywood history, completely negligent of the film’s newness in its Chinese context. Such a reaction may be partly seen as a compliment to the film and its makers. Both Inseparable and Waiting Alone are sleek productions that are stylistically and formally more polished than most Chinese films. To put it more crudely, Eng’s films are much more Hollywood-like than many of China’s blatant attempts at Hollywood clones.

Note #3: American Audience Expectations and Misleading Marketing

The official synopsis for the film in English ranges from the pretty vague:
“Inseparable follows the story of a young man (Daniel Wu) with problems at home and work who is befriended by a mysterious American expat (Kevin Spacey).”via Wikipedia

To the slightly less vague:
“A troubled young man, Li faces pressure at work and problems at home with his moody wife. Chuck, rescues Li from the brink of despair and becomes an unlikely mentor. But who is Chuck really?”via IMDb

And to the slightly incorrect:
“An American expat (Kevin Spacey) helps transform a young man’s life (Daniel Wu) by encouraging him to unleash his inner hero and fight against injustice and corporate greed.”via Amazon

The film is available for viewing through Amazon instant video and iTunes. It’s also available for “saving” on Netflix. The trailers provided by these sites are quite misleading, and as you can see by the one-star review it received on Amazon, the source of viewer frustration.

I highly recommend you watch it. But a few words before you do:

  1. Don’t watch the trailers provided by those sites before watching the film. They set up the movie as a buddy-action-y comedy with music that gives it a Get Shorty vibe of mischief and mayhem.
  2. Speaking of bad marketing materials, I have no way of explaining or understanding the decision behind the one-sheet featured in the sites above with the tagline: “Part time superhero. Full time therapist.” This tagline makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The film has nothing to do with therapists and even less to do with superheroes.
  3. I believe this film, and indeed much of Mainland China’s filmmaking should be seen and appreciated in its own right, bereft of filmmaking expectations set up by our exposure to Hollywood. Though the influences are undeniably there, Chinese films should not be held up to the same standards. Which is not to say that we should pity them or view them condescendingly in relation to Hollywood. On the contrary, we need to be aware of their very unique historical situation and all that they’ve been able to accomplish in a more restrictive and still-maturing film industry.
  4. Inseparable, and Waiting Alone before it, are films that may seem at best ‘interesting’ and at worst ‘Hollywood clones,” particularly for those used to Hollywood productions. However, neither of these films would have been possible before the precise moment in which they were made. In a lot of ways, I think both films are at least a few years ahead of their time and it’s amazing that they were made at all.
  5. If you DO want to watch a trailer for the film, then watch the following teaser:

ABRIDGED VERSION: Inseparable has been largely misunderstood, especially by Western critics and viewers unaware of its place in Chinese cinema history.

Check it out. Let me know what you think!

4 thoughts on “The Curious Case of INSEPARABLE: Some Notes…

  1. Interesting look at the movie–I like the compare and contrast to other films that I do know about. I’ll have to add this one to my list! Let me know if you’d ever like to write an article or two for my site…


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