As the big budget film adaptation of David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas opened in Canada and U.S. over the weekend, it joins the ranks as one of the most epic displays of "yellowface" in film in a decade.
Directed by Tom Twyker and Lana and Andy Wachowski, the film's trailers, television ads and web banners not only place heavy-hitters Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in the film, but showcase creepy images of non-Asian actors wearing "slanty eyes." If you felt weirded out or was reminded of the times you may have heard someone yell, "Hey, chinky eyes!" from across the street -- you are not alone.
The film opened to mixed reviews -- some called it ambitious, others described it as muddled -- as it attempts to knit the storylines of six reincarnated souls who traverse countries, generations and ethnicities. One of the stories is set in Neo Seoul in the year 2144, where Jim Sturgess and Keith David wear makeup and eye-enhancements to appear ethnically Asian.
This is nothing short of arrogant, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "Asian fail."
Reading about this first on Racebending.com in August, it felt like being personally and professionally spit in the face. As an advocate for diversity, particularly in the representation of diversity in television and film, it was painful to see the trailers on TV and online. Not only are the images unconvincing, they are dismissive. They announce to the world, "We don't care what you think."
The film signals to viewers that if enough money is thrown at it, and enough celebrity worked in, it can't be wrong -- and anyway, there's nothing you can do about it. Accept it. It's Hollywood. All fiction films require some pretending, but this one wants you to believe that with a little adjustment to his eyes, Jim Sturgess is now a Korean character, as though there was nothing more to being Korean-looking.
There is a long history of this practice in Hollywood and it has always been racist.
Jim Sturgess in "Cloud Atlas"
The arrogance inherent to this practice speaks of privilege. You know the kind. It's the same privilege that suggested American viewers weren't ready to watch Bruce Lee or any other Asian-looking man as the lead character in "Kung Fu, The Legend" that David Carradine was sufficiently Asian to play Kwai Chang Caine.
It's also the same privilege that allowed Canadians to pretend the forced detainment and exile of Canadian-born Japanese during the 1940s was acceptable.
I am still sore over the failure to cast an Asian actor for the obvious role of Caine. Adding salt to the wound, the series came back as a spinoff in the 1990s, and yes, it too failed to cast an Asian actor for Caine, and instead added another white male lead!
"Cloud Atlas" reopens this wound with precision and malice.
Considering that the North American TV and film industry has failed to demonstrate any real concern for depicting Asian American/Canadian men in meaning ways, should it care now? Perhaps.
Canadian-born East and South Asians have the highest median incomes among all other ethnic groups in Canada. They are the economic mainstream in Canada, even if they are not seen as the cultural mainstream. Persist with this inequity at your own peril.
Andy Wachowski told HuffPost Entertainment, "But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race." Film school is full of student projects made with good intent. Are they graded on the intent? Of course not!
Imagine your mayor showing up at a Halloween Party dressed in yellowface, as Warner Oland's infamous racist caricature Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan. Would attending celebrities make this any more acceptable? Absolutely not. It would likely be the end of a political career. It's unacceptable in the public space. It's unacceptable in any space where the details matter.
What if Sonny Chiba had not played Hattori Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill." Or if veteran Chinese actor Gordon Liu, who played Pai Mei, had been replaced by some actor in yellowface. He wasn't, because the details count when you want to make an epic film.
My pain over this failed detail in "Cloud Atlas" stems not just from the 100-year-old racist history of yellowface, or not being able getting over the personal injustice suffered by Bruce Lee, but from having met so many unmistakably Asian-looking (and even ambiguously Asian-looking) American and Canadian actors who could have played this role.
The saddest thing is that most, if not all, are not in a position of privilege to say anything (especially on Twitter). Instead, they have to bite down and just take it. "Cloud Atlas "is like a punch in the ribs, even to those actors who have already moved to Asia to stay working.
It hurts too much to sit back and passively watch them get spit on by a big budget bully. So I am officially making "Cloud Atlas" the film I never saw. Yes, an old school boycott. I'm going to stand up for the sacrifice these actors make to fight the good fight for meaningful roles. Even it means being unpopular, and taking a few punches to the face or a kick in the ribs. Bring it.
I'm taking the money I'll save to frame the cover of November's issue of GQ.Suggest a correction