Asian film critics have been in a furor over the use of yellow face in the Wachowski/Tykwer epic CloudAtlas since it premiered in the US in October 2012. They rightly argue that it’s so hard for Asian actors to get work in Hollywood, having the likes of Brits Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy don prosthetic epicanthic folds to play Asian characters is salt on an old wound. Several critics have pointed out that no Caucasian actor was put in black face to play the part of Autua, the runaway slave. Instead, the Wachowskis used David Gyasi. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have argued creative license, they were trying to show a myth arc and idea of reincarnation that ‘transcends race’, which is fine. But it’s still salt and the way Asians are portrayed in Hollywood is still an old wound.
One thing a lot of critics and fans alike missed is the overt sexist stereotype in the film. I’ve never read the book and am only dissecting the film but I know author David Mitchell is English, definitely white and male. And it’s worth noting: his wife is Japanese.
Before there was a Male Gaze, there was a White Male Gaze. Especially in the Victorian Era, whether they admitted it or not, European white males stood at the top of the social ladder. Even if they were dirt poor, uneducated, they were raised for centuries to believe they were at least better than Those People or Those (equally poor and uneducated) Women Over There. The white male embodied colonialism and empire. Foreign lands (India, Japan, South Africa) were viewed only in terms of exploitation. And the women who lived in these far off places were only valued for their potential sexual exploitation. The fuckability of foreign women was probably mulled over by many European sailors and explorers from Captain James Cook onward. Even today, sex tours to southeast Asia cater almost exclusively to white men.
That’s the thing about sexism. It always goes hand in hand with racism kind of like peanut butter and jelly.
How do we solve a problem like Sonmi?
And Asian women have been perceived by the dominant paradigm (white male heterosexual) for hundreds of years as sexually exploitable because of the stereotype of their passivity and subservience. Asian women are seen by white men as non-complaining, non-judgmental, sexually available, undiscriminating, eternally youthful and eager to please; essentially everything the Caucasian female stereotype is not. The stereotype of Asian women has more in common with blow-up dolls than any real racial demographic. Asian women are stereotyped as perpetual teenage girls: always nubile, always hyper-eroticized, always a sexual possibility if you are white, male and heterosexual.
I liked Cloud Atlas, the overall film was a fun ride. The Wachowkis were aiming for a flowing dream-like feel to the film and they achieve it. But anyone who’s ever picked up a book on Carl Jung knows that dreams are about symbolism, sometimes in its crudest form.
One of the key characters in Cloud Atlas is a young, nubile genetic clone named Sonmi-451. She is a genetically fabricated human living in a dystopian Seoul, Korea in 2144 AD. Sonmi lives only to serve futuristic junk food to rude customers in a nightmare version of McDonalds. In the Wachowski’s vision of Cloud Atlas, Sonmi and her fellow clone slaves are dressed in strip club frocks that stop one inch below their asses. And what is up with her name? 451 makes me think of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Was the author subconsciously saying Sonmi was hot? That’s unsettling, but so is the other imagery.
Somni is an Asian clone and she and all her sister clone slaves look nearly identical. Or maybe the film’s creepy message is: all Asian women look alike to white males. Again, the weaving together of racism and sexism by the dominant paradigm is obvious. But it gets weirder.
In the climax of the film, Sonmi is rescued (you didn’t think she’d rescue herself did you?) by an Asian male character played by a white British actor in yellow face. The character, Hae-Joo Chang educates naïve-bordering-on-stupid Sonmi about her oppression, how wrong it is to enslave people and so ultimately Sonmi will hop into bed with him. Around this time, Hae-Joo Chang also fills Sonmi in on the uglier side of her oppression. When clones like her reach their expiration date, they’re killed and slaughtered like cows in an abattoir. Their flesh is converted to futuristic food and fed to the next crop of clones, a blunt reference to Soylent Green. In other words, not only do all Asian women look alike in the film’s viewpoint, they’re recyclable. They are literally all the same. That’s a lot of shitty sexist icing on a giant racist cake.
Sonmi isn’t the only female character who flounders under the white male gaze. Halle Berry’s Meronym in the 2321 AD plot line is forever being rescued by Tom Hanks’ creepy Zachry, a mumbling post-apocalyptic hero who keeps forgetting to kill the bad guys. Berry’s other characters fare about the same. Whether she’s in white face or not, Berry’s usually just window dressing such as a beautiful Jewish wife for a withered, ugly Jim Broadbent.
While Cloud Atlas certainly takes the prize for most ambitious makeup and swashbuckling plot, the female characters still plod through the scenes caught up in the same net of sexism that has plagued film and literary characters for a lot longer than Hollywood has been outraging Asian Americans with white actors in yellow face.
Finally, it’s interesting that the overall theme in the film (and I’m assuming the book) is freedom. No matter how grandiose or well-produced sci-fi dreams like Cloud Atlas are, when they originate from a position that won’t acknowledge its own racism and sexism, they’re shackled. These dreams never truly fly.