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Cloud Atlas (Updated!)

(Note: I’ve added and update, because it turned out I had more to say.)

Original Post: Just saw Cloud Atlas. I think Mrs. Jiwaku’s response is a pretty fair one: “It’s a commercial-deep movie.” Which is to say, a commercial movie can only be so deep, but this one tried for that. (So did Life of Pi, which we also saw recently, but that film failed in my opinion.)

The interracial makeup… I don’t know what to say about it, really, except that I’m a bit baffled. I thought at first it was supposed to convey continuity between lives of characters who are, ostensibly, reincarnating. But that doesn’t quite make sense because of the birthmark: surely the birthmark recurs time after time on the same character, and yet in different subplots, the birthmark appears on different characters: Bae Doona’s Sonmi-451, Tom Hanks’ post-apocalyptic survivor dude, Halle Berry’s character back in the 1970s…

So if the birthmark signifies the serial lives of a single character, then why was it necessary to have Bae Doona go in Whiteface? (Her Whiteface appearance was particularly disturbing, as well the Asianface done with James D’Arcy for the “Archivist” character, which ends up looking kind of, well, not completely human, to be frank, and Jim Sturgess’s Hae-Joo Chang character, which was weird and unsettling but a little less awful.) Of course, there’s a lot of interracial and inter-sex costume and acting: Halle Berry plays a “Jewess” (I’m sure the term is contemporary for the character), and a white man too if I’m not mistaken. Bae plays a white woman and a Mexican woman, and so on.

Minsoo Kang made a good point on Facebook when he noted that pretty much every kind of interacial makeup crossover imaginable actually happens except one: no white people put on blackface. Now that should hardly surprise us, given how unacceptable it is–and what a hot-button issue it is–but it should give us pause. As I’ve noted before, at the height of the minstrel show, performers were not only doing blackface but also playing caricatures of all kinds of immigrant “races.” Most of those seem to still be very acceptable, among them Asian-face performance.

But at the same time, I got that they weren’t doing this to avoid hiring more Asian actors–that there was a story reason for all of this. I’m not saying I think it was a sensible choice, or that I would make that choice, but I can see how someone would have argued for it, and believed it was a good solution to the story problem it involved. This felt very different than, say, the film The Last Airbender, which was insulting and overbearing in its racial reassignments of the characters in a world where everyone was supposed to be nonwhite.

I suppose it’s stereotypically easy enough for me to say this, as a white person but this felt more like a storytelling decision that made me uncomfortable than outright racism… because no race is held up as superior, or excluded as inferior: characters of all races are humanized, and actors of all races play parts within the story.

(Tellingly, one press release I saw from a Korean-American group protesting the film complained that the protagonist of the Sonmi-451 storyline is played by a white man; uh… I thought Bae Doona’s character was the hero of that timeline? This reminds me of when Koreans were all up in arms about the “racist” portrayal of Jin on Lost, when Sun was the only nice, “normal” person on the island… certainly the only one who seemed like a decent, not-totally-screwed-up person. The male characters are always more important than the female ones, huh?)

Hiring more actors of different backgrounds might have been a wiser approach, though: they could have tried to find people of the appropriate races who eerily resembled one another, and used makeup to highlight the resemblance. I’m sure in some future project, it’d be trivial to just digitally map the faces of the performers and so some racial-face-structure morphing to get the resemblance without relying on tricky makeup work.

Anyway, moving away from that issue, I thought the screenwriting and story structure was pretty outstanding: they wove together a pretty complex set of stories in a way that actually made sense to me, and I didn’t often feel lost for long. (The moments I did feel lost were the ones when I was supposed to, momentarily, I think.)

I did find the declaration of Sonmi-451 a little tiresome when I heard it for the Nth time, but I have little patience for that kind of repetition, and I suppose I found the religiosity of some of it grating. But I think most of the storylines were compelling, and I especially found it interesting how this story managed to link up stories from the 1850s to the deep future, all in a coherent timeline. That’s something I haven’t seen many SF storytellers do lately, thought Stephen Baxter has been of course. I’m quite curious to read the book, just to see how Mitchell structured the plots of the different stories, in comparison to the film.

The special effects, and especially the Neo-Seoul cityscapes, were just great. I also rather liked the Seoul-ness of the place: there was enough that was consistent with present-day Seoul, the neon pharmacy signs and so on. They took it seriously enough to bring in someone who knew what they were doing.

Anyway, a pretty good film. Didn’t last long in Korea, though I haven’t heard anyone here talk about it, so I don’t know what the local reaction was… would be curious to hear more about that, actually.

UPDATE (1 Feb 2013): More thoughts.

I’ve noticed online a lot of discussion of this film happened before it came out, especially about the yellowface, and how horrible the makeup was, but also about the politics of racial exclusion in Hollywood. (Mind, this film was independently funded, though the involvement of the Wachowskis is very Hollywood, so… I don’t know where that leaves us.)

So I figured I’d read some of the discussion, and see what Asian-Americans have to say about it. I figured reading more would help me understand what I’m not getting.

And to some degree, I see that better. I’ve come to think that if the racebending thing was to signify what all the people who are “valiantly” defending the film say it was supposed to, maybe the filmmakers should have hired more people of various races–so that everyone in the background of every scene ought to have been eerily interracial. This might have driven home some interesting truths, in fact: the racist sea captain in the 1860s plot could have been an Asian in whiteface, or a black in whiteface, someone who just one or two lives ago was a member of the group he now so despises… because he simply cannot remember his true nature or whatever. Maybe Adam Ewing’s family, waiting for him back home, could have included characters of a wide range of races, all in whiteface?

Or for that matter, I could be moved to imagine Jim Sturgess’ roles being played by an Asian actor (who would have to do whiteface for the earlier roles in the film)–that’s far from a stretch if you ask me.

But at the same time, I’ve seen people mention Birth of a Nation and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in comparison, and that seems a bit much for me to take seriously. I mean, Birth of a Nation was (despite its many technical feats) an exercise in Ku Klux Klan apologetics; Breakfast at Tiffany’s not only used a white actor in yellowface but also depicted him as an obnoxious, ridiculous fool. (And it would still have been racist even if an Asian actor had been hired for the job.) I get that there is a continuity between the two films because of the use of yellowface itself, and that yellowface is going to be offensive.

Still, I have a harder time seeing the racebending makeup in Cloud Atlas being about exclusion or mockery. There obviously are issues throughout the story in its treatment of race (and sex, and sexual orientation) but I can’t class the film with those other films because it is much less callous and insensitive. I couldn’t help but scratch my head when reading this post on Racebending, because some of the criticisms seemed sort of… well, it seemed as if the commentator prefers films involving historical settings to be more ideological than realistic.

(For example, complaining that the Frobisher/Sixsmith romance ends badly when there are in the real world gay relationships that end well… er, well, yes, but not so much in 1931. I mean, Alan Turing–one of the men basically responsible for the technological work that made the Allied victory possible in World War II, not to mention one of the fathers of the computer era–was hounded essentially to suicide by the British government over his homosexuality, and that was a couple of decades later than Frobisher’s story. Just because a story is science fiction doesn’t mean it can or should dispense with historical reality… and on some level, it seems profoundly disrespectful to those who suffered under that hatred and exclusion to pretend that it wasn’t as bad as it was.)

Likewise, I understand the discomfort expressed in that post regarding the earliest plotline, involving the white man and the slave who teaches him how wrong slavery is, and how a white man and a black man can truly be friends. Personally, I found the character Autua much more interesting, and wanted to follow his storyline further instead of following Ewing back to his loving family: where did Autua go? What did he do? Did he struggle, or have slavery? Or did he return to the sea, working his way around the world? But again, the objection in the post is this: “Ewing is the one with real, tangible power in the socially constructed society where White people have actual political clout.” Well… if you’re going to depict the global system of the slave trade realistically, then that’s the unfortunate, ugly reality you need to confront and depict. It sucks, because it sucked.

And that’s perhaps why this film resonated for me, and got me sympathetic: because–and it seems to me this is true of other reincarnation-dramas spanning generations: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt comes to mind as another example–a lot of these stories are about people trapped within a system bigger than themselves, a system which is oppressive, and which oppresses them arbitrarily because of who or what they happen to be. (Black, gay, old, a synthetic human.) When you start telling stories about this kind of thing, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to show some ugly systemic features in society, and when that story is set in our world, then the ugly realities of our particular history are going to be the source for all that.

Which is to say, it’s kind of missing the point to which that the gay romance could have ended up continuing smoothly; in the world where this story was set, not only was such a thing extremely unlikely, but the characters trapped in that world simply couldn’t conceive of it. It sucks that the slave character wasn’t empowered in other ways, but then, we’re talking about how empowered a slave character is while placing him in the shadow of a brutal, planet-spanning system of fundamental oppression in which he occupies the lowest rank possible, or very nearly so.

Anyway, all of this isn’t a defense of the casting decisions, or the makeup. All that still kind of makes me uncomfortable… and especially when it’s pointed out that the main male characters are all played by white men. But drawing a line from Cloud Atlas to Birth of a Nation is not going to help convince anyone.

It also reminds me of something I read once. I wish the people who were so offended by this would funnel their energy into making something better. I don’t mean the discussion shouldn’t happen, but, well, if you’re tired of no films starring actors from one or another racial background, or stories not featuring a character of this kind or that kind, and if you really, really care about it: make one yourself. (Or pitch in when someone else tries, either by writing a check, or penning a script, or even just kicking ideas around with creative types you know.) It’s endlessly easy to post complaints online, but that energy could be spent instead of actually injecting something healthy or responsive or critical into the media

And no, I’m not just talking out my ass here. For all the criticism of the exclusion of Asian-Americans in American media, I have to say that Hollywood is, in some ways, light years ahead of what I’ve seen on this side of the Pacific. Most white people in Korean movies are villains of some kind. It’s slowly getting better, but I still see a lot of monsterrific depictions of foreigners (white, Chinese, black) in Korea media, as well as a lot of generalized misogyny. When we got fed up of that crap getting airtime, in the form of news features like this, I drafted up a script for us to work over, until we had something we liked… and then, with the help of some friends, we made this.

(Which a lot of people immediately misinterpreted in a myriad of ways–many of them revealing unsettling cognitive blocks of their own–but that’s another story.)

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