It's official: Cloud Atlas is a flop. At least in the United States. Made for a reported $100 million, the book adaptation barely scratched $10 million in its opening weekend — but some observers say the film could make a tidy profit overseas, where most of its funding came from. Still, it's hard not to ask: Did the film's controversial use of "Yellowface" — white actors wearing clumsy makeup to make them Asian — alienate its natural audience Stateside?
After all, this is a film with a liberal political message, about "sticking it to the man." And the Wachowskis have a big following among lefties — but sticking people like Hugo Weaving into Asian roles seems just guaranteed to push away the movie's natural constituency. (Although consider the irony — the film's distributors are apparently expecting it to make insane amounts of money in China, where it will be shown over the Chinese New Year.)
Last week, when we were emailing with Asian American fans about Iron Man 3's new villain, we also asked them about Cloud Atlas, and how big a problem its "Yellowface" actually is. Here's what they told us:
Jeff Yang, editor of Secret Identities and Shattered, two anthologies of Asian American superhero comics:
My take: it's a wildly ambitious, creatively reckless mess, and at the same time a tour de force. The racefacing is extremely distracting — it's a stunt, designed to generate response — but I don't think it's offensive so much as goofy. The Wachovski sibs and Tywker were trying to make a point and the whole film was in the service of that point; the outrageous makeup antics were a part of that point. Do I agree with the point (which appears to be that race, gender, etc are simply a thin surface layer over our universal and eternal souls, as transposable as latex prosthetics)? Sure, I'd like to. But that kind of ethno-utopianism is usually painfully reductive, and CLOUD ATLAS is as guilty as any work of simplifying the complexities of identity in a way that ignores certain historical realities and important nuances. The stunt prosthetics highlight that flattening effect. I tend to think they could've made the same point maybe more effectively by having the actors play their roles WITHOUT the distracting makeup and letting the acting speak to the differences. But still: I get what they were trying, and you know, nice try.
Michael Le, Racebending.com:
As the Good Men Project points out, the Korea sequence is especially problematic because it portrays many real Asian women as servile all-look-same clones. Meanwhile, any Asian men with substantial dialogue, character, or substance are really white men. The whole premise of the dysopian Korea plays into a multitude of stereotypes about the submissiveness of Asian women and an oppressive patriarchy of Asian men. The fact that the only "real" Asians (characters with depth, given the opportunity to reincarnate, who aren't replicant clones) are white men is unbelievably galling.
I hesitate to even call the film an "experiment" because in the broad strokes it does nothing especially different. White men dominate the main cast, women of color are allowed to fill in romantic roles usually filled by white actresses, and yellowface is used as a means of excluding actual Asian people. I've heard that the scenes on the slave ship are actually supposed to have Polynesian/Pacific Islanders, so it's troubling that black actors have been swapped in as though brown folks are all interchangeable.
From my view, the casting choices made emphasize that white men have open access to any role, women of color are acceptable as sexual partners for white men, and that brown men are a troubling complication requiring millions of dollars in special effects and makeup to erase.
The whole message of a post-racial utopia is deployed here, perhaps with good intentions, but with the same end-result. The trick Hollywood wants to pull is to continue business as usual - racism, sexism, and exclusion - but to claim it's groundbreaking and inclusive.
Tony Le, Racebending.com:
Cloud Atlas is horribly offensive, drawing up all the Asian stereotypes that have haunted Asian Americans in media since media has existed. That's not to say that the movie is a bad or terrible movie — it's not. Cloud Atlas is a beautiful film. It is well-directed, with stunning colors and scenery — but that doesn't dress up any of the racial stereotypes that exist needlessly within the film.
In Neo-Seoul, Papa Song serves up fast food and genetically engineered Korean woman to patrons. These Korean women are only slightly varied in appearance and features, being genetic clones of one another, easily manufactured and replaced. Not only does this reinforce the idea that all Asians are the same, but it also reinforces that stereotype of the beautiful lotus blossom, the beautiful Asian prostitute whose doll-like appearance allows her to be swapped for another person. The Asian women are stripped not only of their personal agency, but of their physical agency as well — they are predetermined from birth to look and act a certain way, to be used for the pleasure of men who view them as objects and consumer items. Somni-451 even says, "Honor thy consumer," which sounds suspiciously like the Biblical saying, "Honor thy father" but also the Confucian ideal of honoring one's family.
Cloud Atlas' depiction of Asian women is not one of its only faults, however. Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and James D'arcy are depicted in yellowface. Their eyes are made to look narrow and slimmer and their noses changed. Jim Sturgess plays Hae-Joo Chang, a revolutionary who frees Somni-451 from her daily routine of being a fast food server. While this is a typical storyline in a dystopic story, its meaning becomes eclipsed in Hae-Joo Chang's uncanny resemblance to Adam Ewing and the other characters Jim Sturgess plays because, unlike the other characters Jim Sturgess plays, Hae-Joo Chang is Korean while Jim Sturgess is not.
These days, make-up and 3D effects improve film and television by leaps and bounds. What was previously impossible has become possible. That does not mean that filmmakers should throw all caution to the wind. Yellowface was offensive in The Good Earth, when White actors and actresses played Asian characters, and yellowface is still offensive now, when a perfectly good Korean actor could have played Hae-Joo Chang. It is even more insulting when one takes the other yellowfaced characters into consideration. The Archivist, the one interviewing Somni-451 as she recalls her life and involvement with Hae-Joo Chang, is played by James D'arsy. There is no reason why he couldn't have been played by a Korean actor.
Hugo Weaving's character, the Prescient, is even more troubling. His first appearance in Neo-Seoul is as a looming authority figure, robed in black. As a White man playing an Asian character, Hugo Weaving's sinister role recalls Fu Manchu: tyrannical, menacing, and above all—evil.
In the film, Somni-451 says, "To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other." She says this to unmask the truth of Neo-Seoul to its inhabitants, but it also unmasks the stereotypes of the film. Asian Americans watching the screen can only see themselves through the eyes of the White actor, which is to say—it is merely an illusion: a trick of the light, a brush of make-up here and there—and the movie has created an authentic Asian, with no actual Asian actors required.
Which only means—why Neo-Seoul at all? Neo-Seoul did not play a big role in the development of the story. Neo-Seoul could have been Neo-Manhattan or Neo-Los Angeles, and it wouldn't have drawn up and reiterated the unfortunate Asian stereotypes that play out every day in other media. The only thing that Neo-Seoul added were the signs, written in Korean. Why then, couldn't they set this part of the story in another city? That would have prevented the need for yellowface completely while still adding the same social commentary.* *The only reason that the movie seems to include Neo-Seoul is because of the way it presents an exotic world to the viewer, different and dark, complete with neon lights and signs in a different language.
Neo-Seoul didn't have to be so, and it's baffling that it is, rendering a well-crafted film like Cloud Atlas unnerving and disturbing — and this is only touching the tip of the iceberg.