The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is criticizing the new Warner Brothers motion picture “Cloud Atlas” — promoted as artistically groundbreaking because its actors swap racial and sexual identities — as business-as-usual in its exclusion and offensive yellow-faced renditions of Asian people.
A multi-ethnic epic spanning the globe and 500 years from the past to the future, “it’s an artistically ambitious approach to filmmaking,” acknowledged Guy Aoki, MANAA’s founding president. “Unfortunately, it reflects the same old racial pecking order that the entertainment industry has been practicing for decades.”
“Cloud Atlas,” written and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy) and based on the novel by David Mitchell, utilizes an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving. In order to stress a thematic continuity among the movie’s six interwoven stories, the filmmakers cast many of the same actors as different characters in each time period.
One of the stories takes place in a totalitarian, mechanized Neo Seoul Korea in the year 2144. An Asian female clone (South Korean actress Doona Bae) is encouraged by another female clone (Chinese movie star Xun Zhou) to break out of her oppressive pre-programmed routine serving men and become an independent thinker. The segment also includes white actors Sturgess, Weaving, and James D’Arcy as ostensibly Korean characters, using eye prosthetics to make their Caucasian features look more Asian.
“‘Cloud Atlas’ prides itself on its multiracial cast,” said Aoki, “but that basically means white men and women of color, like La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘The Nightingale,’ which was criticized last summer for using only two Asian American actresses but allowing five white men to play Chinese characters.
“‘Cloud Atlas’ missed a great opportunity. The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man — an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers. He’s the one who liberates Doona Bae from her repressive life and encourages her to join the resistance against the government. It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often. But instead, they cast Jim Sturgess in yellowface.”
Going back to the beginning of filmmaking, yellowface is the practice of using cosmetics, such as eye prosthetics, to make Caucasian actors look Asian. It is a variation on blackface, which was common decades ago but has all but disappeared.
“In fact, every major male character in the Korea story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface make-up,” Aoki continued. “When you first see Hugo Weaving as a Korean executioner, there’s this big close-up of him in this totally unconvincing Asian make-up. The Asian Americans at the pre-screening burst out laughing because he looked terrible — like a Vulcan on ‘Star Trek.’ It took us out of the movie. And Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy didn’t look much better.”
MANAA Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan stated, “In the modern age of movie make-up, it is disturbing to see poorly done Asian eye prosthetics to make Caucasian men look Asian. The race-changing make-up totally disrupted the flow of the film. The old yellowface movie characters of the past like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan looked more realistic than the characters in ‘Cloud Atlas.’ Why couldn’t they have cast a handsome Asian American actor of mixed race to play the multiple roles in Neo Seoul and the other time periods? It would have made the movie more believable.”
Added Aoki, “It appears that to turn white and black actors into Asian characters (black actor Keith David was also Asian in the 2144 story), the make-up artists believed they only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion. In two scenes in other segments of the film, Bae and Zhou are made up to appear Caucasian. The filmmakers obviously took more care to make them look convincingly white. The message the movie sends is that it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes.”
In another story set in the South Pacific in 1849, Maori slaves are played predominantly by blacks, including Afro-British actor David Gyasi. “Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role?” asked Aoki. “I don’t think so. That would have outraged African American viewers. But badly done yellowface is still OK.
“In any case, this was a lost opportunity to cast real Asian Pacific Islanders. Why weren’t there any real Asian male actors portraying any of the major characters in this supposedly racially diverse film? It’s a double standard. White actors are allowed to play anything — except black characters — and have the dominant roles; Asian male actors are non-existent. And Pacific Islanders are played by blacks.”
Asked Nakamura-Quan, “If, in the making of this complex movie, the creators of ‘Cloud Atlas’ can make creative leaps in time, place, characters, race and gender, why can’t they also take a creative leap in the casting?”
In an interview with The Huffington Post this week, the filmmakers were asked about these types of objections. Their responses are as follows:
Andy Wachowski: “Well, that’s good that people are casting a critical eye. We need to cast critical eyes toward these things. What are the motivations behind directors and casting? I totally support it.
“But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity, so if you look at our past work and consider what our intention might be, we ask that those people give us a chance and at least see the movie before they start casting judgment.”
Lana Wachowski: “Their suggestion is that our tribes have to always remain separate. That the things that make us different are essential elements to our representation and our identity. Why we were attracted to the book is that the book has a bigger perspective. The book suggests that there is a humanity that is beyond our tribe, our ethnic features. A humanity that is beyond our gender. A humanity that unites all of us and transcends our tribal differences.
“As long as we continue to build these intractable and insurmountable walls between us to make these distinctions, we will continue to have intellectual apparatus that allows us to make wars and that allows to dominate, exploit and destroy others. Because we don’t think of them like we think about our own kind, our own tribe.”
On the Web:
Hugo Weaving looks like Spock and Sturgess looks like Ike Barinholtz from MadTV fail on the Korean makeup.