We need to talk about Kevin

Hollywood’s Kevin Spacey stars in his first Chinese movie

We need to talk about Kevin

Spacey star alongside Chinese actress Gong Beibi in Inseparable

First it was Hugh Jackman. Then it was Christian Bale and more recently Keanu Reeves also made the switch. The latest Hollywood actor to test the waters in the booming Chinese film industry? Kevin Spacey.

As it turns out, the Academy Award winner with American Beauty and The Usual Suspects was actually the first of the four to sign on to star in a Chinese production. He agreed to appear in Inseparable as early as 2009, even though the film wasn’t released in China until this month.

Directed by Taiwan-born filmmaker Dayyan Eng, Inseparable follows the monotonous routine of a regular chap named Li (played by Chinese heartthrob Daniel Wu). Li’slife is going downhill: his relationship with his wife (Gong Beibi) is strained, he is behind on his mortgage, and his boss wants him to lie to regulators about a flawed product at his company.

It’s all too much for Li, who decides to commit suicide.

But just as he’s about to hang himself in his living room, Li’s next-door neighbour (and American loudmouth) barges in and stops him. Li and Chuck (Spacey) then become, well, inseparable. They also bond across the cultural divide in an unexpected way: donning superhero costumes and touring the streets of Guangzhou, righting wrongs wherever they encounter them.

Unlike previous Chinese productions featuring leading Hollywood names, Inseparable is hardly big-budget fare. It is only the second feature film from director Eng and cost just $6 million to produce (dwarfed by Zhang Yimou’s $100 million production cost for The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale).

Since Inseparable is financed by Fantawild Film, a Chinese firm, it also means that Spacey is the first major star to top the bill in a fully Chinese-funded film.

Initially, Eng envisioned a Chinese-language script. But he switched to half-English, half-Chinese after Spacey signed on.

“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 told the LA Times.

The film appears to bear an uncanny resemblance to Kick-Ass, a story about a teenage wannabe crime fighter, which was screened in 2010. Both tell tales of amateur superheroes bringing justice to the world (and in handmade costumes, naturally), although Kick-Ass was never shown in China, because of its bad language and violence.

Inseparable doesn’t sound like typical fare for an actor lauded for his recent portrayal of Richard III, nor for a man who doubles up on his screen work with life as artistic director at The Old Vic.

But in an interview with Beijing Times, Spacey explained why he took the role: in part because he thought playing Chuck would be fun, but mostly because he wanted to spend time in China.

“I really wanted to use the time to understand China’s culture, the people and its beauty through my own eyes,” he told reporters.

No doubt he has an eye on the commercial opportunity, too. “Needless to say, a lot of money and talent will pour into China within the next decade,” Spacey continued. “I am more than willing to work in China again, not only as an actor, but also as a producer. In fact, I have been in discussion with a few Chinese filmmakers.”

Before then, he should probably consider cultivating a wider fan base. Inseparable made only Rmb5.3 million ($850,000) in its first week at the Chinese box office (The Flowers of War made $4.8 million a day during its opening period). And during promotion of the film, most of the attention centred on Spacey’s co-star Wu. The Hollywood star professed not to mind, telling the press: “When I was in China, I felt like Daniel’s bodyguard.”

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