Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
I can’t deny that I love the Wachowski Siblings. When I was a kid, I used to play The Matrix over and over again; as a teenager, I would reference the series as one of my favorite movie series. The Matrix was a groundbreaking film with its special effects and is hailed as one of the best science fiction films of all time. I especially enjoyed Speed Racer, in its neon-colored, campy glory–a film that still warms my heart to this day and makes my pulse race.
Cloud Atlas is no exception. It is a beautifully crafted film with beautiful colors and sounds, encompassing varied time periods–some in the future and in the past, and some in present day. But despite its beauty, many scenes in Cloud Atlas are filled with problematic layers that jolted me from the film and left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I left the theater.
Cloud Atlas is composed of six storylines, each set in different time periods, with the same actors being “reincarnated” into new roles. The film shows these different periods interchangeable, jumping from one storyline to the next. In the spirit of continuity, I will address each storyline discretely.
The storyline furthest back in the past is the one concerning Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess). Adam Ewing is a lawyer narrating his stay at Chatham Islands–a slave colony–and his return home to his wife. On his way home, a stowaway from the Islands wakes him and tells him that he’s an able seaman who can earn his passage. The stowaway, Autua, proves himself and eventually saves Ewing’s life from death. At the end of this storyline, Ewing changes his mind about notarizing the slave contract for the Chatham Islands and decides to go help the Abolitionists.
On the one hand, it’s an intriguing story about a black man who saves a White man and changes his mind about slavery. But on the other hand, Autua disappears from his storyline at the end, only there as a prop for Ewing’s moral turnabout, and thus doesn’t sit right with me: as one of the few people of color in the film, it feels like he should play a bigger role. While it does touch upon the issue of racism in a way that isn’t horribly offensive, it still perpetuates the idea that the only storylines worth telling about black people are the ones in which they are slaves who educate white people on how slavery is wrong, rather than expounding upon the triumphs and successes of black people. But in the other, it also illustrates the slave trade as a global trade system, rather than resorting to tried tropes of slavery in the south. But still, Autua is not as empowered in the story in a way that sits well with me. Autua can be so brazen and bold toward Ewing, begging Ewing to put in a good word for him, only because Autua has nowhere else to go. Ewing is the one with real, tangible power in the socially constructed society where White people have actual political clout.
It’s not that I don’t find these stories worth telling. They are worth telling–in sensitive, well-told fashions, ways that don’t run over old and offensive stereotypes of the physically aggressive black man.
The second storyline illustrates the life of Robert Frobischer, the amanuensis to composer Vyvyan Ayrs. This sort of unremarkable storyline becomes much more intriguing when the film reveals that Frobischer is in love with Ayrs and confesses his love to him as he plays the Cloud Atlas Sextet. The film unfortunately derails what could have been a non-stereotypical storyline about queer love by turning Frobischer’s romance into a tragedy. Ayrs threatens to ruin Frobischer’s career by exposing his homosexuality and implying that he is a prostitute. At the end of the timeline, Frobischer commits suicide and his implied lover, Rufus Sixsmith, comes rushing in just as he hears the gunshot.
This storyline can be considered, once again, appropriate to the time period, but it also reinforces the idea that the only kind of queer love that exists is the tragic kind. Many other movies have been made about tragic queer love, in which one or both of the lovers commits suicide due to a ruined career or fear of ostracization. This isn’t to say that these stories aren’t important, or that they aren’t valuable to the queer community, but when they are the only stories that exist representing the queer community, it affects the ways in which queer and gay love are perceived in everyday life–that is: queer love can only end poorly, when in reality, there are many relationships that do end happily.
The third storyline is the story of Luisa Rey, a black female journalist who is writing a story about a nuclear power plant. This story is rather unremarkable, in both its content and its character development. I found this story the least compelling out of all of them, although at one point Hugh Grant’s character does make a quip about “women’s lib”–a statement that goes, for the most part, unaddressed.
The fourth storyline is the story of Timothy Cavendish. Perhaps the most positive story of them all, it engages in the troubles of the elderly, who are often seen as child-like and puerile, constantly demeaned because of their perceived helplessness. Cavendish and a group of his friends eventually escapes the elderly home he is part of and learns to craft his own life independently without the interference of condescending nurses.
The fifth storyline, and perhaps the most troubling storyline, is the story of Somni-451, set in Neo-Seoul, the 22nd century.
I want to say this, first, before I begin: Neo-Seoul didn’t have to be so. It could have been anywhere else and it would have been the exact same story. As it is, Neo-Seoul draws up all the Asian stereotypes that have haunted Asian Americans in media since media has existed.
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.
The film’s depiction of Asian women is not one of its only faults. The major problem I had with this whole storyline is, of course, the yellowface in which Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and James D’arsy are depicted. 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.
Make-up and 3D effects can 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. It evokes the desolate “East,” the Orientalism that painted Asia as a contrast to the Occident in the “West”–ironic because while we hope that these problems would be left behind, to the past, they come up again and again, in science fiction.
As for the last storyline, with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in the Hawaiian Islands: there isn’t much I’m able to say. That is, I’m not sure if I can say anything. I’m concerned about the parallel between Tom Hanks’s tribe and Polynesian culture, but I’m not well-versed enough to speak on it. In some ways, I can see how the section reverses the gaze: Halle Berry’s civilization is more technologically advanced and in a way, superior. At the same time, it makes me uncomfortable that whenever two civilizations meet, there is always an inferior and a superior group, and that this message is often communicated by appearance/skin color.
Like I said before, I’m 100% sure that there are intellectual and academic approaches to looking at Cloud Atlas. It is one of those films you can study and analyze in a class setting, picking apart the theories that may have played into it. I’m interested in that field, too.
There’s no denying that Cloud Atlas is a beautiful film. It’s well-crafted and well-done. Still, beautiful films don’t exist in vacuums. There are still social implications that follow when actors are in yellowface, and this film tries to ignore that–but I can’t ignore yellowface. It doesn’t work that way, and to ask that of me and Asian Americans–to pretend that a White actor can play a Korean man more accurately than someone who is actually Korean–is an insult.