'Inseparable' Culture Clash Story Stars Kevin Spacey

Diverse background of director Dayyan Eng leads to a first in the Chinese film sector.

BUSAN, South Korea -- Normally, answering the question “where are you from” is not difficult. But for Beijing-based director Dayyan Eng, well, it’s not so simple.

Born in Taiwan, raised in Beijing, educated at the University of Washington and a graduate of Beijing Film Academy, Eng moves between English and Mandarin Chinese with ease. His unique background and heritage have given him the opportunity to make significant in-roads into China’s film industry, culminating most recently in the BIFF entry Inseparable, starring Kevin Spacey and Daniel Wu, and due out later this year.

“I’m not viewed as an outsider in the same way [as a foreigner would be],” Eng said. “I play within the rules. It would be the same if I were in a studio system in the U.S., I’d have to do that there too.” Eng wrote Inseparable when he didn’t find any suitable material after finishing his first feature, Waiting Alone, which included a cameo by Chow Yun-fat, and starred Xia Yu, Li Bingbing and his now-wife, Gong Beibi. He took meetings in L.A., but wasn’t thrilled with what Hollywood had to offer.

“Everyone wanted me to do another rom-com. In Los Angeles, everything that was available was horror or teen comedies — what made people think I’d be good at making horror films?” Eng said.

He got lucky due to the slight misfortune of others — the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild contract in the summer of 2008 suddenly freed up actors who might have otherwise been engaged, including Kevin Spacey.

“I thought it would be interesting to see him in a part like this, and felt that he’d get the quirky humor the script called for,” Eng said of the role that sees Spacey play a mysterious American expatriate who lives next door

to California-born Hong Kong star Daniel Wu in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Spacey committed to the film in early 2009, ahead of a shoot in the spring and summer of 2010, making him the first Hollywood star to appear in an all-China financed production — a trend that has continued with Christian Bale’s appearance in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War.

“Dayyan, our director, is so clear about what he is going for, the humor that he wants, I think in many ways it’s a very, very daring and unusual film,” Spacey said in an interview with CNN Talk Asia.

Eng’s multicultural heritage and diverse background have provided him with enviable access to China’s film industry. His biggest challenge, however, is convincing film financiers to back movies that are not the costume dramas or political epics that have crowded Chinese multiplexes over the last few years.

“It’s getting the people to understand what I’m trying to do, and that the audience is looking for this kind of thing,” he said.

During the pitch process, many producers couldn’t see the value of a character- driven film, but regretted later. “With Waiting Alone, some people said afterwards, ‘why didn’t you bring this to us?’ I told them, ‘I did! You didn’t want it!’”

However, the audience is also a significant factor in the blockbuster mentality that currently pervades the Chinese box office. “If I as a filmgoer am going to spend the same money on this ticket whether I see the big action film or the character movie, I’m going to go see the bigger film, though I think the trend is starting to change because people are getting sick of the costume dramas, they have nothing to do with their lives.”

Eng has two upcoming projects set for 2012: a heist gone wrong film that will likely shoot in Hong Kong next spring, backed by China Film Group and a Hong Kong partner. The other is the birth of his first child, due in January.