“Chinese, Japanese, Chinese, Japanese,” they said in a singsong voice, index fingers stretching the corners of their eyes back in an upward, then downward motion to accentuate each word. Or was it downward, then upward? The specifics of these playground encounters elude me now, but years later I still remember how indignant and self-conscious it made me feel.
As it happens, I’m half Chinese and half Japanese, so perhaps the opposing gravitational pulls cancel each other out and that’s why my eyes look normal, albeit slightly asymmetrical. (But, hey, who’s perfect anyways?)
It’s a memory that I try not to rehash too often because it upsets me, but it’s resurfaced many times ever since I saw Cloud Atlas - Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski’s epic, mind-bending adaptation of the David Mitchell novel that comprises six tenuously linked stories that range from a mid-nineteenth century voyage across the Pacific Ocean to 1970s San Francisco; a dystopian Seoul in the near future, and an even grimmer, post-apocalyptic society centuries later. It was a beast of a project to take on, not only in practical terms (no studio would back it), but also in the creative sense (how to fully tell six different narratives yet in a short enough timeframe that audiences will be willing to sit through it). What holds the film together is the sprawling ensemble cast that sees actors taking on roles in anywhere from three to all six of the stories. And because they are so diverse in scope and setting, this means that in many instances these actors are playing against race.
In sixth grade my mother was dismayed when I brought home my copy of the latest reading assignment: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I think part of her issue was that it was a white author taking on a specific ethnic and cultural setting that was not her own (although Buck actually grew up in China so I guess that gives her some cred), but the bigger problem lay in the 1937 Academy Award-winning film adaptation. The particular edition that I owned had an insert with film stills featuring actors Paul Muni and Luise Rainer with horrendously exaggerated “slanty” eyes, which my mom claimed were achieved by using tape. By that age I was well aware of racial stereotypes, but it shocked me to see them so institutionalized, accepted and even, in Rainer’s case, celebrated.
For a long time in the entertainment industry, all it took to be Asian were small, squinty eyes, black hair, and maybe a ridiculous accent for good measure. (Case in point: Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But before yellowface there was blackface, which even predates cinema thanks to cringe-worthy minstrel shows that white audiences somehow found entertaining. So yeah, I suppose I had every right to go into Cloud Atlas ready to be outraged, and yet…it worked. And what’s more: I liked it.
Of course the route that the directors chose to go in was not everyone’s cup of tea; I have a cousin who refuses to see the film, for instance, and the internet at large came down particularly hard on English actor Jim Sturgess. The combination of him having previously starred in the film 21 (the based-on-a-true-story of a group of Asian MIT students who made a fortune by counting cards in Vegas) and being in yellowface for a portion of Cloud Atlas had many erroneously claiming that he hates Asians.
Let us not forget, however, that also in Cloud Atlas we see Korean actress Doona Bae* in whiteface, as well as briefly play a hysterical Hispanic woman. Halle Berry goes Jewish, Indian and Korean too. And meanwhile Tom Hanks is everywhere under almost every conceivable guise.
Despite its discriminatory origins, playing against race can be used to wildly different effects – caricature, as in the aforementioned Rooney, satire, like RDJ in Tropic Thunder, and comedy, e.g. White Chicks. What was pleasantly surprising about Cloud Atlas was that, unlike these previous examples, it didn’t call attention to the fact that – hey – these actors aren’t at all what they’re playing. I mean, sure, it wasn’t perfectly seamless because even with all the prosthetics and makeup each actor has his own irrevocable characteristics, but it wasn’t playing against type for the mere novelty of playing against type. Instead the emphasis was on the richness of the characters.
There’s a lot to parse out of a film this complex, but an overarching theme is the interconnectedness of humanity across time and space to the point of teasing at reincarnation. At the risk of sounding too spiritual, it’s as though each actor embodies a distinct soul that manifests in diverse yet similar ways in each story. Hugh Grant, for example, is a consistent villainous presence. Sturgess emerges as a heroic figure in two segments, and each time his character’s fate is linked with that of Bae’s character. So, simply put, none of this could have been accomplished if there had been a different cast for each segment.
But what is race, anyways? Scientists continue to search for concrete genetic and biological markers but thus far have turned up little evidence. In many ways race is illusory – defined by ourselves as part of our identity, but also projected onto us by others. People who are of mixed heritage would know this best, since there is so very often a vast discrepancy between how they think of themselves and how they are perceived to the outside world.
I understand why people were sensitive about the creative decisions that went into Cloud Atlas given historical precedent, but I think what they did was actually a good thing. Now, I have to fess up that I’ve gone and used a word that I don’t fully understand. What do we mean by “post-race”? To me it means transcending the point where we categorize others based on what is mostly just a load of bullshit superficial qualities anyways, and start acting based on the notion that we are all relatively homogeneous; that we are all just people who share a lot of the same values.
So, could actual Asian actors have been used and then played against race in the other stories? Certainly. But I’m guessing why that didn’t happen was a matter of financing. In this economic climate studios and production companies prefer to back projects that are deemed to have high box office value internationally. Consider who is in the cast already. Tom Hanks. Halle Berry. Hugh Grant. Susan Sarandon. Name one Asian actor who could feasibly draw in audiences at that scale. I can’t. And that’s another industry problem I would love to see ameliorated someday.
*Doona Bae’s parts were originally earmarked for Natalie Portman before the latter got pregnant. Would she have taken the same heat as Sturgess for being in yellowface? The world will never know…