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!                         

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