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INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘Cloud Atlas’ — Is Yellowface OK If There’s Also Blackface and Whiteface?

By GUY AOKI

With the La Jolla Playhouse’s “Nightingale” still upsetting community activists and the white-washed  movies “21″ and “The Last Airbender” still fresh in our minds, it was annoying to learn that Jim Sturgess was once again going to play an Asian character.  This time, with Asian make up.  Yep, in yellowface.

In “21,” Sturgess starred as the lead MIT student who won the most money at blackjack in Vegas after being trained by his MIT math professor. In the book upon which it was based, “Bringing Down the House,” the professor and most of the team was Asian American. In the film, the Brit played the Jeff Ma character with the help of a dialect coach on the set (not to speak like a Chinese American, but simply as an American). That’s how much Sony Pictures didn’t want an Asian American playing one on the big screen.

So now, Sturgess, in pulled eye make-up, is bedding a “real” Asian woman in “Cloud Atlas,” which Warner Brothers will release on Oct. 26. If that’s not bad enough, Hugo Weaving and James D’arcy are playing Asian characters as well.

The movie’s three directors (yep, three!) — Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) say multiple actors will play multiple characters of different races and even different sexes across the past, present, and future. OK, but are they going to have white actors putting on black make-up to portray black characters (surely the NAACP wouldn’t stand for that) and vice versa? Apparently, yes!

Reportedly, Tom Hanks plays at least four characters. Susan Sarandon plays both an Indian male and a female character. Halle Berry plays a white woman.

In "Cloud Atlas," Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving appear in yellowface.

So in a sense, we have a true, rare “color blind/non-traditional casting” situation where actors of all races have the opportunity to play not only any ethnicity but any sex. Well, how many Asian actors are playing white or black people? I’ve never seen an Asian person trying to go “round eye.” How would that look? And the only other black-to-white transformation I can remember are the Wayans Brothers’ universally hated “White Chicks.”

However, if people of all races are putting on make-up, changing their skin color and sometimes eye shape to play different ethnicities, can Asian Americans be upset at seeing yellowface when there’s also whiteface and blackface going on? Only time will tell. This movie, which is supposed to run two hours and 44 minutes, could be a pretentious mess. I will say this:  As is the case with most white actors pulling their eyes to look Asian, Sturgess and Weaving (he looks part Vulcan) look awful. And if that takes viewers out of the movie, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of their casting?

Wait, What? Department:  In other controversial casting news, Marvel announced that Ben Kingsley, who’s half Indian/half white, will play the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.” The villain, half Chinese/half white in the comic books, looked full Chinese and reminded us of the yellow peril/Fu Manchu characters of the past. The general Asian American community likes Japanese actors to play Japanese characters and Chinese actors to play Chinese characters. And if they don’t, it’s taken as a sign that Hollywood can’t tell the two apart. But activists have taken a more liberal approach understanding the actors’ point of view: So few roles are available to Asian Americans that they can’t be restricted to only playing those of their exact same ethnicity; they should be able to play other Asian characters.

The Mandarin, Iron Man's nemesis, in the 1960s and the 1990s.

But is an actor of Asian Indian heritage in the same category as Chinese? Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipinos can be mistaken for Chinese. But Asian Indians? No… I’m assuming Marvel went with Kingsley for two reasons: He’s a respected actor who could bring added gravitas to a superhero film (which is always regarded suspiciously in some highbrow corners) and/or because “Iron Man 3″ is a co-production with China (so it can be guaranteed to be shown in the country and reap the millions of that ever-expanding market), they don’t want to hire a Chinese actor to be the bad guy and offend the powers-that-be. After all, last year, MGM digitally changed the original villains of the “Red Dawn” remake from Chinese to North Koreans hoping it could get played in China.

We’ll have to wait for more images and footage of “Iron Man 3″ to come out before it opens next May.

There’s some hope that director Shane Black knows what he’s doing: At the Long Beach ComicCon last year, he said of the comic book version, “The Mandarin is a racist caricature.”

Ben Kingsley in "The Prince of Persia."

What’s annoying is that when the “Last Airbender”/”Prince of Persia” controversy raged in the summer of 2010, Kingsley, who played a Persian prince in the latter, appeared self-serving. He told CNN, “If we absolutely restricted Romeo and Juliet to be played only by people from an Italian town called Padua, you’d never get the play on. You’d never get the play on in a hundred years. And also, the privilege of being in ‘Schindler’s List’ as someone who’s not Jewish but has a massive empathy for European Jews, should that exclude us from working? We’re actors!”

Sneak Peek Department:  In the middle of the Olympics, NBC took advantage of the largest-ever Olympic audience to preview two of its new fall series: “Go On” and “Animal Practice.” The former stars Matthew Perry as Ryan King, a extroverted sports DJ who’s forced by his boss (John Cho) to go to group therapy sessions to deal with the loss of his wife. I’ve never been a fan of the actor, but I have to say this one has a lot of potential.

When Lauren (Laura Benanti), the therapist, is late in arriving to class, King gets the patients to compete by saying in 5 seconds why their problems are worst than the others. Says one, “I came back from deployment and there’s my wife with a new baby.”

“OK, so you missed the birth!”

“And the conception!”

John Cho ("Star Trek," "Total Recall" and the "Harold and Kumar" movies) is a regular on NBC's "Go On."

Pretty funny. To Lauren’s chagrin, King refuses to take the sessions seriously and just wants her to sign his sheet saying he’s completed 10 sessions (his boss’ requirement for returning to his old job). She tells him that he’s got anger boiling in side of him and if he doesn’t deal with it, it will come out soon, perhaps violently. She’s impressed that Owen (Tyler James Williams, former star of “Everybody Hates Chris”), who’d never talked about why he was there, told King about his older brother who’s in a coma after a skiing accident.  She winds up singing the paper.

On his first day back, King sees someone texting while driving in the parking lot and he throws a fit — along with a lot of fruit at his windshield — and the two almost get into a fight. That’s when King realizes Lauren was right. He returns to class and finally talks about his wife: She got into a car accident while texting him to buy a bag of coffee. “She was the only girl I ever loved.”

In the credits, Suzy Nakamura is listed fourth of eight regulars, playing Yolanda, a meek member of the class. The original broadcast was watched by 16.1 million people.  It was repeated this Tuesday, and the next new episode will air on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

The second series NBC tried to force-feed us was “Animal Practice.” It was the target of much anger when the network stupidly aired it before the closing ceremonies were over, at 10:58 p.m. Then you had to watch the local news, then finally get a couple minutes of The Who. (I don’t know—I missed the ending.) The series features Bobby Lee (“MAD TV”) in ridiculous-looking hairstyle and mustache. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out much of what he said but he plays a cowardly doctor named Yamamoto working at the animal clinic.

It was co-created and co-written by Alessandro Tanaka, so kudos to him for writing a Japanese American character which is billed third out of six regulars. 12.8 million people sampled the show. We’ll see how many stick around for it in the fall.

Don’t They Ever Learn? Department: People are usually perceptive enough to criticize NBC for focusing mostly on American athletes at the Olympics, but this year’s broadcasts were even worse. Of the sports I watched — swimming, volleyball, and running — there were pre-packaged profiles on mostly Americans, British, or Australians (you could almost hear the producers’ thinking: “No Americans in this heat? OK, what other white countries we got?”). Nothing on Asian participants.

In fact, during a qualifying sprint race, the commentators (and I can’t stand your voice, Ato Boldon! Here’s a clue for you:  If you keep saying “As I said before…” it’s a sign you should simply shut up because you’re talking for the sake of talking and we haven’t forgotten what you just said a minute ago!) focused so much on the U.S. and Jamaica, they failed to acknowledge that a runner from Japan came in second!

No Justice in the World Department:  I was shocked when Felix Fang was eliminated on “Master Chef” ahead of David Martinez, the overweight cook from Chicago who has a penchant for undercooking everything yet acting as if he’s got everything under control. The oaf was finally ousted last week but judge Gordon Elliot (who’s also overweight) gave him a job working at his restaurant in the Windy City. Geesh. Is there no satisfaction?

Luckily, blind contestant Christine Ha continues to shine, making it into the Top 4. During a team challenge, two groups took over the kitchen of Hatfield’s in L.A. and were given one hour to prepare 22 dishes a piece for real-life customers who would then rate the food. Usually when it came time to picking teams, Ha was chosen dead last. This time, team captain Becky Reams picked Ha first, saying she had a “refined palette.”

For the first time, it was revealed that Monti Carlo was hard of hearing. Ha laughed: “Becky has to really amp up her communication because she’s got Team Helen Keller!”

One of the three judges, Joe Bastianich, in private conversation with the other two, expressed surprise that Ha was given anything important to do, saying, “I’d make her coat checker!” After Becky’s team won, Bastianich admitted to Ha, “I was completely, categorically wrong.”

“Master Chef” airs on Fox Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

———

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at guyaoki@yahoo.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

4 Comments

  • Jeff
    August 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    “I’ve never seen an Asian person trying to go ’round eye.’ How would that look?”
    Exactly like this:
    http://www.beyondhollywood.com/uploads/2012/06/Tom-Hanks-in-Cloud-Atlas-2012-Movie-Image.jpg

  • Re: Cloud Atlas
    August 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    Is Yellowface okay if there’s also Blackface and Whiteface?

    In this circumstance (re: Cloud Atlas), yes, it seems to be okay. Examine the intent/purpose of the yellowface. These are six separate, complex stories being told in the movie.

    The use of actors (Hanks, Berry, Sturgess, and so on) in multiple stories, in multiple roles that vary in race, gender, and age is to show the link between each story, which is humanity – life, death, violence, protecting the innocent, survival. The movie demonstrates that we are all connected, and that our lives and actions affect others. I could write for days extrapolating on the plot. It’s incredible what David Mitchell crafted, and how the Wachowskis and Tom Tryker have translated the story to film, which was thought to be impossible.

    I understand why it is important to examine any use of yellow/black/whiteface, and I would agree that the vast majority of examples of such would be inappropriate. The whitewashing in “21″ was terrible. But this movie is different. In many ways, it transcends race. I hope that it does not offend. Knowing the Wachowskis devotion to diversity, that would be their absolute last intention.

  • Mimi
    August 25, 2012 | Permalink |

    The makeup artist for the yellow face should be fired. They both look odd and not believable. If they don’t have an Asian actor playing a white face then I am going to be mad. This movie could be a real disaster if it is not done right.

  • re: Cloud Atlas
    August 29, 2012 | Permalink |

    Mimi, if you look through the picture stills on the Cloud Atlas website, there appears to be a “whitefaced” Doona Bae embracing Jim Sturgess in the first storyline. Does that change your mind?

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