April 3, 2013

MANAA Asserts Offensive Yellowface Make-Up and Exclusion Of Asian Actors in Cloud Atlas

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Written by: MANAA

Cloud Atlas, written and directed by Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and based on the novel by David Mitchell, utilizes an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving. In order to stress a thematic continuity among the movie’s six different interwoven stories, the filmmakers cast many of the same actors as different characters in each time period.  Press photos of Sturgess and Weaving in yellowface make-up to look Asian raises concerns in the community.
MANAA ends up blasting the film for its double standards in using (often bad) yellow-face make up to portray Asian people but not blackface to depict blacks and for missed opportunities for “real” Asian actors to play fuller roles.

Here’s the timeline.

August 22, 2012-Guy Aoki speaks with Kiko Washington (Senior VP of Worldwide Human Resources for Warner Brothers, Entertainment) on conference call with Marilyn Tokuda (his co-chair in the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition), outlines his concerns about yellowface, asks for a pre-screening of Cloud Atlas for MANAA members and Tokuda, and asks if any white actors put on blackface make-up to look black.  Washington says he doesn’t know and will get back to him on that.

September 6-Through email, Aoki asks Washington about any examples of blackface.

Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang.

Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang.

September 13-Washington says as of the last cut, two white actors play Asians (and several other races) and two Asian actors play White and Hispanic.  Some male and female actors play each other’s gender.  Black actors also play multiple races and genders.  Also, many actors play races that can’t be specified (multi-racial).

Aoki re-asks his question regarding black face. The exec doesn’t answer, though says he’s requested a pre-screening for him.

September 20-Aoki talks to Washington again, who reports that in a scene which takes place in the future, a black girl calls Tom Hanks her grandfather, implying that Hanks is black.  But Aoki points out that doesn’t mean Hanks himself looks black.

October 5-Aoki emails Washington to see if any pre-screenings have been set up.

October 8-Washington offers three dates though one is full.  He’s got six spaces.  Tokuda drops out.

October 15-Washington’s executive assistant Kathleen Flynn arranges an October 18th screening for MANAA.

Convening at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank to discuss the film, left to right: Robert Payne, VP Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Secretary Guy Aoki, and President Aki Aleong.

Convening at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank to discuss the film, left to right: Robert Payne, VP Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Secretary Guy Aoki, and President Aki Aleong.

October 18-President Aki Aleong, Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Secretary Guy Aoki, and former MANAA member Robert Payne attend a pre-screening of the film on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank.  No white actor puts on blackface, though many white men put on make-up to look Asian.

Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi.

Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi.

October 25-Aoki issues a press release (“MANAA Asserts Offensive Use Of Yellowface Make-up and Exclusion of Asian Actors in the Film Cloud Atlas”–drafted by Payne and edited by Nakamura-Quan and Aoki with input from Aleong), which he cc’s to Washington.  It’s covered by the Hollywood Reporter (becomes the 5th most read article that day as well as the next), Huffington Post, and other outlets.

For the full press release click here.

Cloud Atlas prides itself on its ‘multi-racial cast,’” said Aoki, “but that basically means White men and women of color, like La Jolla Playhouse’s The Nightingale, which was criticized last Summer for using only two Asian American actresses but allowing five White men to play Chinese characters.

Aoki said, “Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity. The Korea story’s protagonist [in the year 2144] is an Asian man–an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers.  He’s the one who liberates Doona Bae from her repressive life and encourages her to join the resistance against the government. It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often.

James D’Arcy as a government archivist.

James D’Arcy as a government archivist.

“‘But instead, they cast Jim Sturgess in yellowface.  In fact, every major male character in the Korea story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface make-up. When you first see Hugo Weaving as a Korean executioner, there’s this big close-up of him in this totally unconvincing Asian make-up. The Asian Americans at the pre-screening burst out laughing because he looked terrible–like a Vulcan on ‘Star Trek.’ It took us out of the movie.  And Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy didn’t look much better.’

“‘It appears that to turn white and black actors into Asian characters (black actor Keith David was also Asian in the 2144 Korea story), the make-up artists believed they only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion. In two scenes in other segments of the film, Bae and Zhou are made up to appear Caucasian. The filmmakers, Aoki said, ‘obviously took more care to make them look convincingly white. The message the movie sends is, it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes.’

“In another story set in the South Pacific in 1849, Maori slaves are played predominantly by blacks, including Afro-British actor David Gyasi.  ‘You have to ask yourself:  Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role?’ asked Aoki.  ‘I don’t think so: That would have outraged African American viewers.  But badly done yellowface is still OK.’

“‘In any case, this was a lost opportunity to cast real Asian Pacific Islanders.  Why weren’t there any real Asian male actors portraying any of the major characters in this supposedly racially diverse film?’ Aoki concluded, ‘It’s a double standard:  White actors are allowed to play anything–except black characters–and have the dominant roles; Asian male actors are non-existent.  And Pacific Islanders are played by blacks.’

“Asked Nakamura-Quan, ‘If, in the making of this complex movie, the creators of Cloud Atlas can make creative leaps in time, place, characters, race and gender, why can’t they also take a creative leap in the casting?’”

October 29-Cloud Atlas comes in second place for the weekend grossing only $9.4 million (the budget was $102 million).

November 5-The film makes $5.4 million more in its second weekend for a total of $18.4 million.

End of December-Cloud Atlas has grossed only $26 million in the U.S.

Cloud Atlas poster with Doona Bae out front.

Chinese Cloud Atlas poster with Doona Bae out front.

February 11, 2013- Chinese Cloud Atlas poster, which International Business Times reporter Justine Ashley Costanza points out that while the movie’s only grossed $85 million worldwide and is still considered a flop, it made $16 million in China (“Cloud Atlas A Surprise Hit In China, After Offending Asian Community In The U.S.”).

To see full article click here.

Guy Aoki tries to explain the situation:  “I think the movie posters emphasize Zhou Xun (an actress from China) and her ‘Korean’ boyfriend more, so it creates interest in the film. Asian nationals don’t understand intricate issues of race like yellowface, lack of Asian actors playing roles, etc.”

Costanza writes:  “Character actor and MANAA president Aki Aleong believes the film’s favorable reception in China is due to the country’s acceptance of Western ideas.

“‘The Chinese, as well as other countries in Asia, have an identity problem,’ Aleong said. ‘They’re greatly influenced by the United States, believing anything coming out of the U.S. is better than what comes out of their own countries.  The most popular surgery in China is eye surgery, to “de-slant” their eyes to look whiter. People change the color of their hair, etc.  It’s considered “marrying up” for Chinese people to marry white men.  With all of these issues combined, a white guy wearing bad Asian make-up is not offensive.

“‘The make-up isn’t convincing enough for these white men to pass as Asian,’ he continued, ‘but many Chinese people are trying to look white themselves, so the lines are blurred regarding what Asian people are supposed to look like.’”

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