Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Some Thoughts.

I got a chance to see the controversial-for-Asian-Americans-movie "Cloud Atlas" this past weekend (and no, I didn't pay to see it) which is a fantasy/Sci-Fi epic that explores the continuity of human nature through the stories of several sets of characters set in various time frames spanning several hundred years, past, present, and future. I suppose one could say that the characters represent "archetypes" of the human experience whose qualities range from wicked, greedy, oppressors, to flawed heroic saviour types, as well as everything in between. The movie explores this idea of the relationships between archetypal characters and their role in the evolution of human progression (and digression) being played out over centuries and employs the theme of reincarnation to show how the human story can be viewed as a repetition of this struggle between those archetypal characters who seek to diminish human flourishing and those who wish to expand it.

Although at times visually breathtaking (Halle Berry!), and generally well-acted (Halle Berry in a white jumpsuit!), the epic theme and the fractured way that it had to be expressed meant that there was just too much story to be told and in a too disjointed way for the movie to work successfully. Of course, from an Asian-American perspective the movie employed some character development practices that have left many within the community feeling alienated from the film. I'm referring to the use of "yellowface" - the practice of using theatrical make-up and prosthetics to transform Caucasian actors (but in this case also black actors) into East Asians. A time-honored practice in the entertainment industry, yellowface is both a symbol and strong measure of the degree to which the movie industry discriminates against Asian actors - particularly Asian male actors.

In short, in Cloud Atlas four different actors, all male, three of whom were Caucasian, one of whom was African-American, are "transformed" into Asian men by perfunctorily slapping a strip of skin-toned latex over the upper lids of the actor's eyes to make them seem to turn into slits and slant off-horizontal. Now, it has to be said that there was a smattering of incredulous snorting around the theatre when these Asianized (or Asian-eyesd) characters first appeared, which seemed to suggest that the latex prosthetics were unconvincing. According to some defenders, this race-replacement strategy was necessary because the movie's theme of reincarnation was depicted by using the same actors to play different characters reborn over time. Apparently this is because there are no other means by which this simple idea of a soul being reborn into different bodies could be conveyed without using laughable make-up on the same actors. Of course, this rationalizaton fails when we realize that Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, and Doona Bae, all play the roll of the main character (whose soul is reincarnated into their bodies) at different epochs in history. So clearly, audiences aren't so stupid that one would need a comically made-up actor to portray a different race, otherwise this wouldn't have worked.

Naturally, Asian-Americans are disturbed by this strategy of race-fakery in film when it would seem that finding talented male actors of Asian descent to splice into these roles would have been easy to do. The choice to chink-up non-Asian actors has been defended against accusations of racism on the grounds that the movie has a diverse cast (including an Asian female in a major role). Yet, it is difficult not to notice that the choices made by the movie's makers are almost identical in character to the practice of discriminating against Asian male actors that is customary in Hollywood and which white-washes Asian males out of leading roles even in historical pieces where the main character is Asian. Most telling of all was that several people in my group - Turks who are unacquainted with America's racial politics - remarked how the amateurish and silly  the race make-up seemed, leaving them to wonder why Asian males weren't cast in the roles but Asian women were.

Perhaps worse still is the fact that the only time an actual Asian male takes centre stage in the film it was in a beyond-minor role as an asshole who sexually harasses a female waitress and then gets his ass beat by her. Thus, the movie displays all of the qualities we see of a typical Hollywood flick that marginalizes Asian men out of leading roles, but then leaves room for a portrayal of an Asian male getting beaten up by a girl - just in case we forget that an actual Asian man couldn't possibly perform the heroic deeds of a white man with latex over his eyelids. Perhaps the whole issue could be resolved by casting Asian men made up to look like white-men-made-up-to-look-Asian. The irony of this movie is, therefore, remarkable in the extreme. The movie's grandiose claim is that it is documenting the "connectedness" of us all - except, of course, when the connection is with Asian men.

But there is another aspect to this movie that seems to have gone unnoticed amidst the criticisms aimed at the film's Yellowface. Korean actress Doona Bae plays a major role in the movie as a clone waitress, "Sonmi 451", who upon realizing that she has been created to be a slave, has an awakening of consciousness that leads her to recognize the injustice of her existence, the consequences of which changes the course of human history and leads to a better world. Yet, what I realized was that the Sonmi character, despite being the focus of a major shift of human consciousness, was actually little more than the tired stereotype of a helpless Asian woman being rescued and directed by white men - albeit in this case, with latex upper-eyelids - who, in the process, give her life true meaning.

In a strange juxtaposition of contrary archetypal concepts, Sonmi's awakening changes the course of human history whilst her character remains completely vulnerable, non-self-sufficient, unskilled, and completely helpless. But the reason she succeeds is that she is rescued, protected, and told what to do by men. In fact, her only strength is her ability to curry sympathy through fatalistic tear-shedding - the several scenes in which her tears drip dramatically from her helpless doe-eyes became rather annoying after a while. I found the narrative to be completely unconvincing in its own right, but also a rather tired reworking of an old stereotype. This seems to confirm what I have long suspected that in some quarters Asian women are the new baby seal-cubs who are adorable but who need rescuing because they can't help themselves. In an unintended symbolism, Sonmi goes on to be worshiped  as a Goddess in the far distant future - mirroring Hollywood's worship of the fantasy of the helpless Asian woman.

Overall, I find it disturbing that a movie can purport to be a narrative of the human connection across the ages, and the "oneness" of the human experience, yet those who made the movie seemingly don't practice what they preach. Instead they adhere to the common-in-Hollywood racially biased practice of excluding Asian male actors from leading roles, or reserving them for brief cameo roles in which they are humiliated in some way. The film's "profound" message is further diminished when we realize that the story's most important character - Sonmi - is actually a unoriginal stereotype. This is the enlightened side of Hollywood.

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