Friday, January 25, 2013

Controversial Cloud Atlas Part 2 - Cloud Atlas Isn't Racist

Ahem. Before I begin I would like to point out that this is Part 2 of a two-part post and that since writing Part 1 I've seen the film once more. Suffice it to say that my opinion hasn't changed. And so on we go with Part 2: Cloud Atlas isn't racist.

Left: "I'm starting to think this race-bending thing might upset a few people." Right: "We're over ten drafts in, goddammit." 
Naturally, when it was revealed that Cloud Atlas would be featuring non–ethnic East Asian actors in what has been dubbed "yellowface"(i.e., makeup meant to make non–East Asians look like East Asian people), there was quite a bit of uproar on the inter-web, especially among Asian-American communities. This is entirely understandable, as such casting and makeup choices harken back to an uncomfortably recent time in which Hollywood would have Caucasian actors play East Asian roles in their films. It was the belief of producers and studios of the time that no decent WHITE moviegoer — thought to be the majority movie-going demographic at the time — would have the slightest interest in seeing East Asians onscreen . . . on any screen, for that matter, TV included.

Bae Doona, first as herself, then in whiteface. 
As result of this, a lot of stupid stuff happened, such as David Carradine being chosen over BRUCE FRICKIN' LEE to star in the original Kung Fu television series — which Bruce himself helped create — because Bruce was thought to look "too Asian" (**face palm**). Anyway, it was a pretty shitty time to be an Asian-American actor in Hollywood . . . Oh, wait, it still kinda is. But that's another post for another time (seriously, I'll get to it). Anyway, this was likely one of the reasons why people weren't too happy about Cloud Atlas's "artistic choices" at first, including myself, but there were other arguments as well. Some said the makeup decisions in Cloud Atlas serve to highlight differences between ethnicities; others cited the race-bending makeup as insensitive, offensive, or just flat-out bizarre and said it didn't really work as intended. Regardless of the specific complaint, however, it seemed that most people had this idea in mind: that Cloud Atlas is racist. Fair enough, but I disagree. 

I'm going to be a smartass for a second and turn to the good old Merriam-Webster Dictionary in an attempt to define the term racism, which according to MW is defined as . . .

1.  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2. racial prejudice or discrimination

Before anyone points out that this is simply one source, I checked five other dictionaries and they said more or less the same thing. I shall use these definitions as guidelines to illustrate how Cloud Atlas approaches race and why it is not racist. To that effect, let's look at the first definition.

Hugh Grant, sporting his racially ambiguous-but-probably-white cannibal face (right).
In Cloud Atlas the racial makeup is not meant to highlight any one character or to explain or justify any sort of behavior or character trait that any one character might possess based on their race or ethnicity. In other words, the film doesn't slap yellowface on Jim Sturgess, make him start speaking in a stereotypical accent, and go on about how "unscrupulous" he supposedly is because he's so gosh darn "Asian," and let's thank God for that. Nor does it make a big deal about how "German" Halle Berry's character is supposed to be, and "Oh, she's so white and European. Egad, we are so proud of ourselves, for we have transcended race!" No, there's none of that. The use of the racial makeup is actually pretty darn subtle from a cinematographic point of view. The film doesn't make a big deal about it, the shots don't linger longer than they have to on characters that have been "race-bent," the actors don't speak in stereotypical accents (except for maybe Tom Hanks as an English gangster — yeah, that happens), and their behaviour is not characterized by their race. The actors are simply present to fill whatever role they have been assigned in whichever story is being presented, however their ethnicity and, at times, gender have been adjusted to suit the needs of the character they are portraying. These characters and their behaviour are not characterized by their race (or gender). See the film and you will know what I'm talking about. 

So that's definition number one out of the way as far as I'm concerned. Now for number two.

The "old guy" in the back is not a real East Asian person.
The film does not discriminate: everyone is race-bended equally, with the exception of blackface, as it's pretty much a given that that would have made for a distribution nightmare and is just a really stupid idea, given North America's history. Honestly, though, I feel that even if they did have blackface I'd still be making this same argument. Anyway, back to the issue at hand. In Cloud Atlas we have black folks made up as white folks, white folks made up as East Asian folks, East Asian folks made up as white folks and, we can't forget, men made up as women and women made up as men. Now, I'm not stupid enough to ask the question "Hey, how come no one cares if Asian and black actors are made up as white people, HUH!? You don't see white people getting pissed off at that, so how come all those Asians are so pissed off, HUH!?" If you asked this question you're either an idiot or never took history at school in North America. 

Halle Berry, also in whiteface. 
My argument, which ties into the first definition of racism to some degree, is that whether the character an actor is portraying is a protagonist or an antagonist in their respective story, that role is not dependent solely on race. In other words, you don't see Bae Doona as an evil and fickle East Asian character in one story and later on portrayed as a perpetually angelic white character in another. Every time she is portrayed as anything other than white, she is not necessarily evil, and neither is any other character for that matter. To sum it up, the characters in Cloud Atlas are well written, not two-dimensional ethnic stereotypes whose characteristics depend solely on their race, and the race-bending makeup is not used to this effect (I may be repeating myself here, sorry). In this way I feel that the use of the race-bending makeup is not inherently racist; it simply serves to enhance the various settings of the film.

Despite this, however, I can't deny that the use of the makeup struck me as a rather peculiar idea initially. Why do it? Why risk upsetting entire ethnic communities in order to make a damn movie? These are perfectly legitimate questions. 

Xun Zhou, rockin' the whiteface.
So I've talked about what the race makeup isn't, so now I'll tell you what it is. The race-bending makeup in Cloud Atlas is meant to convey a theme that is central to the original story that the film is based on (i.e., the book), which is that feelings, emotions, ideas, and even souls and such spiritual stuff can transcend mortality. I haven't read the book yet (and I do mean yet, as it is only a matter of time now), so I'm not sure how it deals with these themes. However, the film attempts to use the makeup to differentiate between characters played by the same actors in order to hint at the existence of something akin to reincarnation, which is evidently indiscriminate of ethnicity in this story. For example, in one of the film's stories two characters may have a relationship, the nature of which is repeated in another story with two different characters, of different ethnicities, portrayed by the same two actors (confused yet?). This whole idea of life-transcending interconnectedness is a big one, to say the least, and so perhaps requires a big and perhaps too-gutsy-for-its-own-good idea to portray it, such as race-bending makeup.

"One of these things is not like the other."
The makeup is used as a tool for telling the story and exploring themes within, not solely to draw racial lines between the characters and their traits. Quite honestly, I don't see how else they could have done it, aside from using a huge cast of actors of different ethnicities and using flashbacks to tie them together or some such element, but do you really believe that would have worked as well? Would that have been as interesting? I mean, really think about it (that is, think about it until you agree with me).            

Thus I conclude that the race-bending makeup in Cloud Atlas is not racist, on the grounds that it is not intended to serve a racist purpose or to exploit race in itself. It is not used as a pretext to change or convey characters' traits — i.e., good or bad — based on ethnicity, and it is used nearly indiscriminately (with the exception of blackface, which I agree was probably for the best). It is used to explore a theme, a sort of life-transcending spiritual relationship between characters. Does it work? In some scenes better than others, to be sure. Sometimes it looks flat-out bizarre, but you know what? It's a new idea and not one that is without merit, as I feel it does add to the film. The Wachowski broth—, *ahem* siblings tried something new with Cloud Atlas, and I don't think that's such a bad thing. Cloud Atlas is all in all a pretty darn good film that is challenging, fun, smart, and very fresh indeed. Is it flawless? No. But what movie is? 

If you're one of those offended folks who has boycotted the film, this probably won't change your mind. But in any case, just see the damn thing; if you're afraid of supporting the evil racist Hollywood machine, then just download it, for goodness sake. If you have half a brain and are tired of the usual mindless Hollywood swill, then you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Alex says, "Support good cinema, especially if it's mainstream, 'cause then they'll make more!" That is all.

Afterthought: Why the heck do we expend so much time and energy on caring about race anyway? Why don't we just measure people based on their individual qualities and merits? Oops, sorry. Got a little too progressive there . . . *cough, cough*.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Controversial Cloud Atlas Part 1 of 2

Cloud Atlas, a film in which several loosely related narratives are woven together and acted by an A-list and largely international cast, finally came out in South Korea, so I went to see it. I was intrigued by the ambitiousness of the project and the controversy surrounding the production, and after reading several reviews was very curious to see if the film, at least in my eyes, was any good. Suffice it to say I liked it a lot.

Here is a guide to the individual stories and characters therein of Cloud Atlas. This should give an idea of the complexity of the narrative. If you want to actually read it, right-click and save the image. 
Not too many films, especially in Hollywood's mainstream, have done what Cloud Atlas set out to do initially, which, it seems to me, was to unite genres, actors of different cultures, and the aforementioned narratives. The film consists of six different stories that take place in different time periods, which are introduced from the earliest to the latest, starting with a lawyer's diary set in 1850 and finishing with a post-apocalyptic setting with a nonspecific date in which much of humanity has been reduced to a primitive tribal lifestyle in a radiation-saturated valley. After introducing each story, the film bounces around the narratives at various appropriate intervals in an attempt to unite them through common themes, aesthetics and even actors. I would argue that, for the most part, it works. But what about this controversy?

The many faces of Hugo Weaving as seen in Cloud Atlas
What has more than a few people up in arms about the film is the method it uses to differentiate the actors in each story, which is through excessive use of makeup. The main cast of Cloud Atlas consists of about 13 people who appear in all six of the stories made up as different characters. Of course actors are made up in all films, but Cloud Atlas attempts to use makeup to "transcend" ethnicity. In other words, the film has several scenes in which Black and East Asian actors are made up to look White, Black or Hispanic, and in one of the stories that is meant to take place in a futuristic South Korea, Black and White actors are made up to look East Asian. Not surprisingly, it is the latter that has bloggers, columnists, and entire communities vehemently criticizing or outright boycotting the film.

Bae Doona and Jim Sturgess in Neo-Seoul
Cloud Atlas was initially brought to my attention by Angry Asian Man, a well-known Asian-American blog that I read from time to time. Philip Yu, the writer of the blog, posted a screenshot of Jim Sturgess, one of the film's main cast members, in what he referred to as "yellow face," playing the role of Haejoo Jang, a character from the film's "Neo-Seoul" setting. The responses to the capture by other AAM readers were naturally not positive, and understandably so. When I saw the shot myself, I reflexively left a comment somewhere along the lines of "Seriously, Hollywood? Come on!" But I was also a bit curious, as I'm a sucker for both science fiction and existentialism, and Cloud Atlas seemed to be offering these in droves.

An echo of what many are saying about the film.
Eventually I watched a review of the film on the Escapist magazine's "Escape to Movies" series, in which Bob Chipman, a.k.a. Movie Bob, addresses the controversy. He explains that as it serves to enhance the story and is not used in a mocking or derogatory way, the "race-bending" makeup in Cloud Atlas is not inherently racist, insofar as the word is commonly defined. After hearing this and Chipman's praise of the film's surprisingly coherent and meshing narrative, despite being made up of six individual stories, I decided I would reserve my judgement until I'd actually seen the film myself. My verdict? I really liked it -- a lot -- and quite honestly I would have to agree with Chipman's statement that Cloud Atlas is not racist. 

Find out why I think so in the next post!                         

Monday, January 14, 2013

Remembering the Early Days

Studying in South Korea is certainly no walk in the park, but as I find myself currently on the two-month winter holiday (from January to March) that is standard in Korean post-secondary schools, I have found time to become reacquainted to some degree with my old pal anime. Now if you've read my blog in the past you may be aware of my love/hate relationship with the medium, as I spent a lot of time in previous posts going over all the things that annoy me intensely about it (see the "10 Things I Hate about Anime" series of posts from 2012). Despite this, I don't just hate anime but also like it, and some if it very much so. One of the ones I do like is Patlabor: Early Days, which I finished watching just the other day!

The cast of Patlabor and one of their "labors" -- otherwise known as mobile suits.
This series of "original video animation" (OVA) is an adaptation of the Patlabor manga that spawned a television series, which I reviewed some time ago, an additional OVA series, and three pretty damn good movies (see Early Days is only seven episodes in length, with each one running about 30 minutes. The series follows the exploits of "Special Vehicles Unit Two" of the near-futuristic Tokyo police force as they attempt to thwart terrorists, avoid scandals, fight sea monsters and relax in bathhouses (!?). Yes, indeed, the varied subject matter can be attributed to this short series' being quite similar to the TV show, in that it's got giant robots 'n' stuff but focuses way more on the human characters instead of mobile suit vs. mobile suit fisticuffs.

This is a capture from the opening intro. Nice and clear, eh?
The series has been beautifully remastered in 1080p HD, so despite being from the '80s it looks really clear and pretty! If you've got some time to kill and have a hankering for some '80s Japanese character-driven funness, then you might get a kick out of this.        


Thursday, January 10, 2013

A World of PSY

Soooo, I haven't blogged for four months . . . Turns out studying in Korea is hard . . . harder than I expected, anyway, more for dealing with new surroundings than the actual school work. But such is life, eh? So it is now 2013 and the world has once again survived a horrible would-be apocalypse  good for us! Anyway, I felt that I should start blogging again, as I do quite enjoy it and have not done so in quite some time. Another thing I haven't done is make any mention of that PSY fellow or that "Gangnam Style" thing that got a few folks a little worked up back in the summer. Even though the PSY craze has died down a little (at least here in Korea), many folks seem to be pondering the question "Why PSY?" Well, here's my two cents on the matter. The following is adapted from a brief in-class paper that I had to write here in Korea. Check it out!    

Why PSY? This is a question that many people have been asking ever since "Gangnam Style" exploded on to the world stage last summer, and it has continued to be a popular subject of discussion among Koreans and North Americans alike. The first I ever heard of "Gangnam Style" was from a Korean exchange student I was tutoring in Toronto. I had known of PSY before, as his song "Champion" was the first Korean song I ever heard in my life, when I was in high school, but I wasn’t very interested in him as his songs were mostly light and not very thought-provoking (no pretentiousness intended). In the end I never really got around to checking out "Gangnam Style" until one of my Canadian friends suggested it to me.

Work it!
As the resident expert in South Korean pop culture among my friends and family, I was surprised to learn of the rapidly growing popularity of "Gangnam Style" from a Canadian friend who had little prior interest in Korea or Korean culture. He had seen it on YouTube and told me I had to see it. After watching it, I fell in love with the video, showed it to my friends and family and watched it over and over again. The video really appealed to me, as it was so absurd and had tonnes of South Korean pop-cultural references. At that point, having spent four months in Korea (before this visit to study abroad), I was able to recognize a lot of the people who appeared in the video and actually knew what Gangnam was. The funny thing is that I found the song to be not as interesting in itself, because it was very repetitive and kind of silly. Nevertheless, the video and the song had spread like wildfire among people who still thought Samsung was a Japanese brand. Why was this?

PSY holding his Guinness Book of World Records certificate for most liked video on YouTube.  
I believe that the popularity of "Gangnam Style"  and, by extension, PSY  outside South Korea can be attributed to three things: the video, the accessibility of the song, and the simplicity of the “horsey” dance that appears in the video. The video is colourful and random and contains numerous examples of physical comedy, which is the most accessible kind. The video features a pudgy, loudly dressed, not-so-young East Asian man dancing like a maniac with all manner of people, such as a cute and ultimately funny-looking dancing kid, a very slender and equally loudly dressed Yujaeseok, and of course the "sexy" Hyuna, who is also colourfully dressed and made up. Aside from these characters, the video contains explosions, horses and totally bizarre and hilarious situations and imagery. There is so much imagery that is funny simply because of its absurdity that it doesn’t matter if the audience knows these celebrities or not. They can just enjoy the ride because it’s ludicrous -- and comes with an easily accessible song.

Ohio State University marching band performing "Gangnam Style" at a football game. YouTube this if you haven't already!
When I say Gangnam style is accessible, I mean that you don’t need to understand Korean to enjoy it. The beat is strong and simple, PSY’s voice is loud and distinct and the electronic synthesizers give the song energy. These elements automatically make for a successful club anthem, but what about all those Korean lyrics? Most of the people listening to this song don’t understand Korean, so why has it become so popular? I can answer this question in three words – “Hey, sexy lady!” I imagine that for most people who saw the video for the first time, the image of PSY dancing up to a yoga group of attractive women with that ridiculous dance, singing “Heeeeeeeeeeeey, sexy lady!” probably hooked people on this video. It did for me, anyway. Not to mention that the chorus is very easy to remember and repeat. The ridiculous dance itself is also one of the appeals of "Gangnam Style."

PSY performing "Gangnam Style" at the 2012 MTV Europe Music Awards.

The “horsey dance,” as PSY himself has called it, does not require much coordination or physical ability. This means that if the song plays in a club or at a party, everyone can do the dance because it is so easy to memorize and execute. There are, of course, other steps to the dance, but as long as everyone can remember the chorus, it’s very easy. These three elements lead to a media experience that is accessible and thus appealing, which is why I believe so many watched the video on YouTube and continue to watch it today. 

But what about the future of PSY outside Korea? Will a large-scale market for Korean music in North America and Europe be generated by the success of "Gangnam Style"? Sadly, I doubt it.

Here's a club promotion from L.A.
Despite the popularity of "Gangnam Style" abroad, South Korean popular music in general is enjoyed by only a small and concentrated minority of “Westerners,” and while this number has grown in recent years it is still vastly outweighed by the majority. In my experience, average Westerners prefer music that they can understand and relate to, sung by people who look “Western” (namely, white or black), and have little interest in South Korea or its pop culture. PSY’s current popularity in the West can be attributed to the accessibility of "Gangnam Style," a result of its smart mix of elements – in other words, right stuff, right place, right time.

News illustrated's guide to dancing Gangnam style!
Sadly, I believe that PSY’s good fortune may be hard to re-create, which will result in his being a one-hit wonder Stateside, where he recently signed a recording contract. It is my feeling that differing cultures, lack of interest, and old-fashioned racism will likely ensure that PSY does not experience another phenomenon like "Gangnam Style." I could be wrong, but we’ve seen this happen before with other non-English-language songs that became very popular in primarily English-speaking countries (for example, Kyu Sakamoto's early sixties hit, titled "Sukiyaki" in the West). They arrive on the scene, they are enjoyed but not fully understood, and then they disappear into popular memory. I feel that this will be the fate of "Gangnam Style" too.