Asian American media group criticizes use of yellowface in ‘Cloud Atlas’

LOS ANGELES — The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has released a statement criticizing the new Warner Brothers film, “Cloud Atlas,” which it said has been 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.”

The multi-ethnic epic spans 500 years and takes place in various locations around the world, takes “an artistically ambitious approach to filmmaking,” the organization’s Founding President Guy Aoki said in the statement.

“Unfortunately, it reflects the same old racial pecking order that the entertainment industry has been practicing for decades,” Aoki said.

“Cloud Atlas,” written and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola, Run”) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy), is based on the novel by David Mitchell. The film has an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving.

A number of the actors play different characters in each time period throughout the six interwoven stories.

In one of the stories, white actors Sturgess, Weaving and James D’Arcy play “ostensibly Korean characters, using eye prosthetics to make their Caucasian features look more Asian,’” the statement said.

Aoki compared the film’s approach toward diversity to the La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Nightingale,” which was criticized over the summer for using only two Asian American actresses, and having five white men play Chinese characters.

The film “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,” Aoki said.

“But instead, they cast Jim Sturgess in yellowface,” Aoki continued, referring to the practice of using cosmetics, such as eye prosthetics, to make Caucasian actors look Asian.

“In fact, every major male character in the Korea story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface makeup. When you first see Hugo Weaving as a Korean executioner, there’s this big close-up of him in this totally unconvincing Asian makeup. 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,” Aoki said.

MANAA Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan stated, “In the modern age of movie makeup, it is disturbing to see poorly done Asian eye prosthetics to make Caucasian men look Asian. The race-changing makeup 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 makeup 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, Aoki said, “obviously took more care to make them look convincingly white. The message the movie sends is, 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. “You have to ask yourself: 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?” Aoki concluded, “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?”

According to MANAA, it is the only organization “solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans,” which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. It led nationwide protests against the movie “Rising Sun” in 1993 and challenged Sarah Silverman’s use of “chinks” in her joke on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in 2001.

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