Sometimes I wonder if I read film titles too literally. Take Inseparable by Chinese-American director Dayyan Eng (Waiting Alone, Bus 44) for example. Who is inseparable? What is? Is Eng talking about the couple in the film, or the main character and his new and slightly loopy friend? Or maybe he means to imply that the main character is inseparable from the experiences that make him human, or that all of us are inseparable from the systems within which we live?
Possibly, the answer is all of the above? Daniel Wu is Li. He seems to have a nice apartment and a decent job and a beautiful wife (Pang, played by Eng favourite Beibi Gong). He also makes a fairly tidy knot in a piece of rope, which he’s just about to use to hang himself with when a neighbour knocks on his door and interrupts him. The neighbour, Chuck, played with easy charm by the ever-likeable Kevin Spacey, seems to be a rare breed – a complete stranger who cares that Li is apparently depressed enough about something to try and kill himself and wants to help him. Luckily (or conveniently), Chuck’s slightly unconventional, anachronistic approach to Li’s problems is exactly what the trapped and desperate Li needs.
And so begins a beautiful friendship. Or so it seems. As Li, under Chuck’s tutelage and possibly-suspect encouragement, takes increasingly assertive and erratic action against what he sees as the wrongs of the world, from standing up to rich bullies in a minor car accident to donning homemade superhero outfits and forcing crooked manufacturers to confess their crimes, one starts to get a slightly different picture. Are Li and reality really as “inseparable” as he seems to think?
This question – not of what definition of inseparable the title is referring to, so much as whether what we’re seeing of Li’s world is a true and realistic representation – provides most of the weight in this faintly quirky and entertaining dramedy. Unfortunately, Inseparable is trying to be a number of things, none of them with any real conviction. It’s a personal journey, albeit slightly superficial and humorous, through male grief. It’s a buddy movie comedy – Li and Chuck serve up some truly amusing moments in an effort to make things right for the powerless and ignorant masses. It’s a thriller – Li is clearly going crazy and like pretty much everything else in his life, he doesn’t seem to have any control over how. It’s even maybe (at a push) a little Wings of Desire (or City of Angels, if you’re into the American remake) – Chuck isn’t really there. Or is he?
It might even be a little bit social commentary. Unfortunately it just can’t quite seem to make up its mind. The uncertain reality, rather than a chilling revelation, really just ends up weakening the clash between the comedy and the tragedy of Li’s situation so that neither have the poignancy or impact that they might have alone. But that in itself is something in Inseparable’s favour. It’s heavy enough to bring a bit of a tear to the eye but light enough not to be overly traumatising. Wu capably handles the slightly manic ups and downs of his role and it’s due to his ability to flip-flop emotionally and convincingly like this that the film manages to work as well as it does.
Spacey, while entertaining, isn’t really mapping any new territory either, which is a shame because both he and this film could have been so much more if Eng’s direction had been more aggressive and his story harder hitting. As it is, much of the best parts of the film have to do with the chemistry he and Wu share – and that in itself is worth watching for. As long as you don’t think too hard about all the things this move could have been if it perhaps had just picked one, you won’t be wishing you and your money had been equally as inseparable as whatever the film’s title was talking about.