I just saw "Cloud Atlas", and while I don't intend to review it just yet or really talk about the film itself, I do want to talk about the elephant in the room first.
Yes, in the movie, a number of Caucasian actors are made-up to "appear" Korean. This has stirred up a lot of anger and understandably so.
The most common response to this is that it's OK because they do it for everybody. Black people play white people, men play women, Asians play Mexicans, etc. The idea, they claim, is that the human shell does not matter. It is the soul that is important.
While I do agree with this sentiment, I do not believe it is a suitable defense. If this were indeed true, then they should have been able to cast a majority of Asian-American actors and actresses instead of Caucasian ones.
However, I think that saying "it doesn't matter" is not the true point. If that were the point, then they wouldn't have needed to keep casting the same actors as the same fundamental characters throughout the film.
No, the point is that it DOES matter, but that the physical form, like a cloud, is changeable while still retaining its essence.
To help make my point, let's talk about another elephant in the room in regards to the directors.
The Wachowskis (known primarily for "The Matrix") are two siblings, Andy and Lana. Back when they made "The Matrix", they were known as the Wachowski Bros. They were very private people and for a long time it was rumored that the reason was that one of the brothers, Larry, was a transsexual While PR people and producers would often deny it, eventually it was proven true as Larry came out to the world as Lana while promoting this film.
I will confess, understanding transsexuality was difficult for me, but over time I believe that I am coming closer. And while I know that most people who go see "Cloud Atlas" won't see it knowing about Lana's personal history, when I saw actors changing form throughout the movie's six stories, I felt like that was Lana speaking to the audience.
It's not that the surface doesn't matter. If that were so, Lana would not have undergone surgery. It's that the surface is only a reflection of the times and circumstances of who we are. The idea that we can't or that we shouldn't change that is the sort of thing that Lana has likely faced while going through her transformation. And it's also the same sort of idea that is on all sides of racism, sexism, etc. The idea that making Hugo Weaving look like a woman is demeaning to him or the idea that making Halle Berry white is shameful or the idea that making Jim Sturgess Korean is taking an opportunity away from an actual Korean... these are all parts of what make the barriers that keep us apart stronger.
It's not about forgetting that these barriers exist. It is important to acknowledge that race and sex have meaning within the context of society. It is as much a source of pride and community as it can be a tool for hate and bigotry. But if we say that only Asians can play Asians, then that limits Asian actors as well. I'm not saying that it's not important for diverse people to have a greater presence in the media, but it is important that they can be present as any character, not just "Asian" characters.
The reason Jim Sturgess's Korean character could not have been played by an Asian actor, at least not while achieving the same result, is that the audience knows it's Jim Sturgess behind that makeup, and they know he is a white person. However, part of that story is his relationship with Sonmi-451, and like all other stories in this film, it is about two people of different races coming together. While they are both "Asian", in the story, Sonmi is genetically engineered. They are of different races, and by having Jim Sturgess play Hae-Joo, that message comes across visually.
Additionally, if he had been played by an Asian actor, it would have been an Asian actor in the first story, which would have been problematic for the visual message of that story as well since it was about abolitionism and Jim Sturgess' other character transcending the racism of that time.
The biggest problem with this film's portrayal of "skin" is that intent isn't enough to make a message. I believe that a lot of people who agree with the message of this film will feel that the approach of the film is harmful and offensive. And the truth is, if they feel that way, then that is in fact the case.
However, I don't think that's what's important. These people already believe in equality. The question, to me at least, is whether or not this film presents a negative message about race and sex to people who don't already understand it. I honestly believe that it doesn't. I honestly believe that it is impossible to take away a negative message about race and sex from this film without distorting it and completely ignoring half of it.
The reason that casting a white person as a Korean is a problem is because there aren't a lot of Koreans in film, or even in this film which partially takes place in Korea. Yes, the person playing Sonmi-451 is Korean, but she's one of very few speaking actors who is Korean. This under-representation is a problem, so when a Korean character (particularly one that transcends stereotypes) is cast with a white actor, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
I think the issue is not the portrayal within the movie, it is the context of the world the movie is fitted to. The problem is with us and our world and the fact that the movie, which is very much anti-bigotry, does very little to remedy it.
For these reasons, if you believe that this film is racist, or at the very least offensive, I will not disagree with you or tell you you are wrong. However, I hope you will forgive the fact that I do not feel the same way and that it does not lessen my immense and overwhelming appreciation for this film.
EDIT: Having discussed it and thought about it more, I do want to make one more distinction.
Yes, the process of making the white actors "appear" Asian is inherently racist. This does not make the film racist. This does not make me racist for loving this movie. But the act itself IS racist and the fact that they used this practice for a movie that's very much ABOUT how racism is BAD is super-problematic. I really do wish that they had found a way around this that didn't diminish the power of the film. The use of the same actors for the same group of characters and the same "core" roles does give the movie a lot of power, but the fact that they use yellowface as a part of that is just awful and I absolutely wish they hadn't. So I guess I want to sum this up in two points:
1) This film is not racist and does have a good reason for using the same group of actors and actresses throughout the film.
2) Just because the film is not racist does not mean that its use of yellowface is also not racist. Yellowface is racist and will ALWAYS be racist no matter how it is used. This does not make the film bad, but its use of yellowface can and should be criticized and the people who do so should not be labeled as Social Justice Warriors or whatever.