'Yellowface' reflects the racial pecking order

Make-up turns Jim Sturgess ‘Asian’ in Cloud Atlas.

Make-up turns Jim Sturgess ‘Asian’ in Cloud Atlas.

Directed by Tom Twyker and Lana and Andy Wachowski, the film’s narrative hops between countries and across the centuries.

“It’s an artistically ambitious approach to filmmaking,” said Guy Aoki, founding president of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans (Manaa). “Unfortunately it reflects the same old racial pecking order that the entertainment industry has been practising for years.”

Aoki was particularly concerned by a segment set in a futuristic South Korea, in which the actors Jim Sturgess, James Darcy and Hugo Weaving are made up to play Asian characters.

“Every major male character in the Korean story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface makeup,” he said. “The Asian-Americans at the [preview] screening burst out laughing because [Weaving] looked terrible — like a Vulcan on Star Trek.”

The Manaa contrasted the Korean segment with a sequence in the South Pacific, starring Afro-British actor David Gyasi as a Maori slave. “You have to ask: Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role?” Aoki said. “I don’t think so: that would have outraged African-Americans. But badly done yellowface is still okay.”

Asianweek.com reports that the Manaa led protests against alleged racial stereotypes in the thriller Rising Sun and criticised comedian Sarah Silverman for using the term “chinks” on an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Leading American critic Roger Ebert has hailed Cloud Atlas as “one of the most ambitious films ever made”. Others are less convinced. —  © Guardian News & Media 2012

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