Cloud Atlas Review: Yellowface And Orientalism

By Guest Contributor Jennifer; originally published at Mixed Race America

This post is the second installment in a three-part review. See parts one and three.

There are many people who have written about the phenomenon of “yellowface,” which is the Asian version of “blackface”–having white (although at times there have been black) actors and actresses portraying Asian and Asian American people in Hollywood films. has a particularly astute and thorough accounting by contributor Michelle I.  I recommend reading her piece, “Yellowface: A Story in Pictures,” to familiarize yourself with the looooong history of yellowface in Hollywood cinema.  But I think this photo of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s probably says it all:

As I wrote about in yesterday’s post, there’s a certain narrative logic that the filmmakers had in mind for putting their non-Asian actors in yellowface (including the African American actor Keith David in a role that reminded me of Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix, if they had taped back Fishburne’s eyes).  One of the themes of the narrative (film as well as book) is a repetition or eternal recurrence of experiences, of relationships, of people with a comet birthmark who show up across space and time.  To connect these otherwise disparate narratives, the filmmakers chose to have actors and actresses play various roles in all six segments/stories of the film–so Halle Berry has a throwaway minor role as a woman dressed in a sari (she’s supposed to be an Indian woman in London) but in two other stories she has a major role (as a Latina reporter in 1970s SF and in the future as a post-apocalyptic survivor who has access to technology).  One of the stories takes place in 2144 in Neo Seoul, a dystopic “corporocracy”where “pure bloods” are consumers and “fabricants” are the cloned humans who serve them.  So that brings us to the white actors playing Korean or Neo Korean men:

Jim Sturgess playing a Korean commander

Jim Sturgess without the yellowface


Hugo Weaving playing a Korean enforcer

Hugo Weaving as himself

James D’Arcy playing a Korean archivist
James D’Arcy as himself
I’m not sure whether to say that the film’s makeup and special-effects department did a “bad” job in the yellowface department.  I mean, given their task, this may have been the best they could do, although one would think that if you could turn Eddie Murphy into an old white Jewish man, you could do a better job with Hugo Weaving.  I didn’t really find the yellowface all that believable with these actors.  Perhaps because I had been seeing them throughout the film in their non-yellowface roles.  While I understand the impulse to want to use the same actors in all the segments of the film, there are things I wondered about, for example:
1) In the first segment, which takes place aboard a schooner in the mid-19th century, the Polynesian/aboriginal “slaves” are portrayed by African American and Afro-British actors.  It could be that the film decided to transplant African slaves into the South Pacific, but I wondered about why the filmmakers didn’t just hire aboriginal/South Pacific/Maori actors to play these roles?
2) While it’s true that the racial masquerade isn’t just inclined towards yellowface–that there are Asian and black actors who are in whiteface–Halle Berry plays a German Jewish woman, Bae Doona plays a 19th-century lawyer’s wife in SF and she plays a Latina sweatshop worker in 1970s SF–no one in the film is in blackface (which I am glad about).  My point is this: while it’s understandable according to the logic of the film to put both black and white actors in yellowface for the scenes taking place in Neo Seoul, why wasn’t that same logic applied for the scenes depicting Polynesian slaves–that not one white actor or Asian actor was put into blackface I think is a recognition on the filmmakers parts that to do so would have been to have ignited a (pardon my language) shitstorm.  But yellowface they figured they could get away with.
3) Did they have to do this racial masquerade at all?  I understand that they wanted to have the theme of eternal recurrence, but since they made such a big deal about the characters in all 6 vignettes having the same comet birthmark, it seems like they could have emphasized THAT feature in all of the characters that are said to “recur” in the 6 different segments.  And/or isn’t it possible that Neo Seoul is a cosmopolitan place where there are white and mixed race people?  They didn’t change David Keith’s skin color when he played a Korean resistance fighter–they just taped back his eyes and put him in white robes.  Seems like they could have simply had him be a black man in Neo Seoul and/or they could have also just kept Bae Doona as the 19th-century wife in SF with Hugo Weaving as her father.  They do this in theater all the time–you just suspend belief because you know this is artificial so why strain things to make a character “look” like the appropriate “race” according to the narrative when they can just play that character?  I know, film is different than theater, but Louis CK has had different women playing his ex-wife, including an African American actress.  Seems like they could have been more imaginative in this department.
4) This last issue isn’t a yellowface issue, it’s an Asian vs. Asian American issue.  Since the characters in the Neo Seoul segment are all speaking in English (many with a British accent, for some reason), why did the filmmakers cast a Chinese and a Korean actress in roles that they could have cast Asian American actresses in?  I have nothing against either Xun Zhou or Bae Doona, but verisimilitude doesn’t seem to be top on the Wachowski’s agenda (see my above point about using African American actors to portray Polynesians) and if it was for the Neo Seoul segment, why cast a Chinese actress–why not find two Korean actresses?  There doesn’t seem to be a clear logic in the casting decisions of which actors are playing which characters.
So leaving aside the problem of yellowface (and I do think it’s a problem–as Anthony Lane says in his New Yorker movie review, the use of yellowface “sure as hell doesn’t work here, inching beyond embarassment into insult” and others are also protestingthe yellowface as well), the other issue I found disturbing in Cloud Atlas was its depiction of Asian women.  In the novel, female fabricants come in various “models”–there’s a Sonmi model and a Yoona model.  They have the same face/body but are designated with different numbers: Sonmi-451 and Yoona 939.  I believe in the novel there are 3 different models who are servers at a restaurant.  But in the film, the actresses are actually played by different women who are made to look like they are cloned.  In other words, rather than using CGI to depict the women in the restaurant looking the same, the film used various Asian female extras, gave them the same haircut, put them in the same skimpy outfits, and then said that they were all the same.
In other words, the film seems to be counting on audiences not recognizing Asian female distinction and difference–they are expecting audiences to just believe that different Asian female extras actually all “look” the same–look like one another.  And apparently websites describing the film are also confused about the distinctiveness and individuality of various Asian women since they have confused the film’s two Asian female actresses with random Asian extras from the film.  For example:


This is the Chinese actress Xun Zhou who plays Yoona-939 (couldn’t find a still from the film, but this is taken from the movie’s premiere)


IMDB claims that this woman is the actress above, Xun Zhou, but it doesn’t look like her.
Another website claims that this is the Korean actress Bae Doona…but as you can see below
…these women don’t look alike (this is Bae Doona playing Sonmi-451 in the film)

Asian women do not need to be distinguishable from one another, either in the film or outside the film when talking about the actresses portraying cloned Asian women.  Also, while Halle Berry does have a love scene where you see her naked back in one of the vignettes (the one where she is in whiteface), the Neo Seoul segments show the female fabricants either naked or in very skimpy clothing meant to sexualize them.  This is a huge problem in terms of the Orientalization going on in this film because there is a long history of Asian women depicted as sexually available and sexually evocative in Hollywood cinema.  And I didn’t really see the point of depicting the women naked–perhaps the scantily clad part I get, but the film only seemed to reinforce all of the pre-existing stereotypes that we have about Asian women, especially as they’ve been rendered in celluloid.

But don’t take my word for it, see Elaine Kim’s documentary, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded for a history of the sexualization of Asian women that has taken place in the past and still takes place in the present, with Cloud Atlas as the latest entry in the Orientalizing of Asian women.

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  • julia

    Re: blackface – I thought that Tom Hanks was actually in blackface at some point during the film?

    • Monkey_pants

      No, all of the characters that Tom Hanks plays in the film were white.

  • Anonymous

    Yikes! The last two yellow face makeovers are especially bad! And to use multiple Asian actresses to portray “clones” of each other is stupid and insulting. Great article btw and I agree with much of what you said. Also I liked the video towards the end.

  • Elton

    Great review! Be sure to read the last part:

    The author points out how the filmmakers deliberately avoided blackface but thought yellowface and brownface were ok. What were they thinking?

    I still haven’t seen the film, but having been a fan of the Wachowskis since The Matrix, I gave them the benefit of the doubt regarding the film’s glaring racial issues. After reading this and other reviews, my opinion is beginning to sour on exactly how forward-thinking the Wachowskis actually are on race in cinema. For years, they’ve been silent. Now, they’re promoting their own movie and have a lot to say about it. They should answer our concerns about the racial issues in Cloud Atlas.