Yellow-facing in Cloud Atlas: is it offensive or simply art?

As part of our weekly husband-and-wife date, HRH and I decided to watch Cloud Atlas, which we’d borrowed from our local Video Ezy on the weekend. Since most movies run for an hour and a half to two hours, we thought we’d have plenty of time after Cloud Atlas to grab some lunch but little did we know, it’s one of those sci-fi epics that go for a full 3 hours!

Not that we complained. With 6 parallel story lines converging towards the end into one, arguing for the twin New Age beliefs of reincarnation and karmic resolution through rebirth, HRH and I were just too engrossed in the movie to notice the time. For a full synopsis of Cloud Atlas, please click on this link.

Being a wordy-person what I marvelled at most was of course the script, followed a close second by the boundless talents of the make-up artist to transform protagonists into people of different ethnicities, from various time periods. For instance, Halle Berry who appears in all 6 story lines plays a Native Woman, a Jewess, a Black woman (which she naturally is), an Indian party guest, a man and a coloured woman of undefined ancestry.

The make-up artist for Cloud Atlas did such a stand up job of  transforming the actors that we couldn’t identify most without looking on the internet for a breakdown of their roles in the movie. This inevitably raises the prickly issue of yellow-facing, which is the use of white actors to portray East Asians, a practise which has been in existence for as long as Hollywood has made movies. It would seem that without names known to the Western movie goer, none would see it, hence the need to yellow-face white actors.

As an East Asian movie-goer I’d usually be offended (hey, you think I don’t know what I look like!) by yellow-facing except that East Asian actors in Cloud Atlas also get the same transformative treatment as white actors, turning one Doona Bae, who’s ethnically Korean, white, then Mexican, then into a machine-birthed human slave. Now there’s a mouthful.

When I think about it, apart from misrepresenting East Asians in cinema or depriving East Asian actors of roles in Hollywood, the practise of yellow-facing itself is harmless. After all, if East Asians can take over-exposed pictures to wash out the colour in their skin, tape their eye-lids open and contour their faces with powdered bronzer and highlighters – so as to look white – what’s wrong with white people doing the reverse in order to look yellow?

With the number of cam-whoring East Asian 20 something females I see on facebook daily, all attempting to look some version of white, perhaps there will come a day when even we, East Asians, no longer know what we really look like. Perhaps then yellow-facing will exist not because Western cinema-goers refuse to be lured into the cinemas with foreign, unpronounceable names, but rather because there are no authentic-looking East Asians left. If you think that’s far-fetched, consider that a Korean director (I think he made the hugely popular “My Sassy Girl”) worried about being able to find an authentic-looking Korean girl to play the lead in his movie since the prevailing trend is for East Asians to try to “white-face” themselves.

Ethnic-bending aside, if ever there was a movie that could convince the audience of the existence of previous lives, this is it. Cloud Atlas is intelligent, well thought out, daring and bold. It’s singularly visionary. I haven’t read the novel by David Mitchell which the movie is based on, but now I’m raring to give it a go. If these borrowed lines from the movie are anything to go by, I reckon it’d be a damn good read:

“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” 

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

“I believe there is another world waiting for us. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.” 

Fantasy. Lunacy. All revolutions are, until they happen, then they are historical inevitabilities.” 

“You say you’re ‘depressed’ – all i see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.” 

“. . .my dreams are the single unpredictable factor in my zoned days and nights. Nobody allots them, or censors them. Dreams are all I have ever truly owned.”