Cloud Atlas: Racist or Understandably So?

Posted by Annie Chung & filed under Pop Culture.

Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang. Photo credit: The Telegraph UK.
Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang. Photo credit: The Telegraph UK.

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Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang. Photo courtesy of

While Cloud Atlas, written and directed by Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, may have received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, for the North American October 26th premiere, the film was met with mixed reviews. While some might call it “ambitious” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) and others “boring”(Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor) or even “too long”(Tony Medley, Tolucan Times), perhaps one of the biggest issues concerning Cloud Atlas is not its daring cinematography or its lengthy screen time but rather the decision of its producers to cast Caucasian actors in Asian roles. If you have seen the trailer or even the movie itself, no doubt you would have noticed that many of the Caucasian actors, namely Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy, portray Asian characters in the Neo Seoul subplot of the film.

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) has slammed Cloud Atlas for its portrayal of Asian characters, going as far as saying the actors were “in really bad yellowface make-up” and that it was “totally unconvincing” and “terrible” in a statement to Asian Week. It is understandable that many may feel insulted or even disgusted at the “yellowface” presented in the film, but even as supporter of Asian American rights, I would still have to disagree with the harsh backlash that has faced Cloud Atlas. Despite implications that these roles may be borderline racist, after watching the movie in theatres, I am still hesitant to respond so negatively.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by British writer David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas interlaces six individual plotlines that are brought together through some universal force. At least one of the characters from each subplot is reincarnated in the next, and so it makes sense to allow the same actors and actresses to play different roles throughout the whole film. What makes this situation particularly complicated is that many of the other actresses also racially transform. Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy cross racial lines, but Doona Bae, emerging South Korean actress, also crosses these lines when she plays Sturgess’ Caucasian wife Tilda Ewing. Chinese actress Zhou Xun also transforms to portray Tom Hanks’ Caucasian wife Rose. Even Halle Berry, at one point in the film, is seen as the unfaithful blonde wife, Jocasta Ayrs, of Jim Broadbent’s character. Cloud Atlas doesn’t stop there. It also showcases gender-bending in Hugo Weaving’s memorable depiction of the notorious Nurse Noakes in one of its subplots.

Cloud Atlas‘ racial-bending may be part of its artistic charm and creativity. “The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race,” Andy Wachowski commented in response to the criticisms. And I agree. I don’t think the directors of Cloud Atlas are ignorant of the fact that they committed “yellowface”, and I don’t think that they are actively promoting it. At the same time, I do think that “yellowface” is culturally insensitive. If Hollywood presented a white actor with “blackface”, I doubt the African-American community would be too pleased.

In this case, I don’t think that the racial discrepancies should be the highlight of Cloud Atlas. The film has so much more to offer than the discussion of the physical appearances of its actors and actresses. While it certainly would have been a great opportunity to showcase more Asian actors and actresses, within the bounds of the story, these casting choices make sense. Considering the theme of the film is the interconnectedness of the human race, the re-casting of the characters in different roles symbolizes that “our lives are not our own” as the movie so constantly points out.


Annie is currently interning for Schema and studying English at UBC. She enjoys reading, writing, blogging and watching movies in her spare time. You can follow her musings on Twitter @missanniechung.



About Annie Chung

Annie Chung
Annie Chung is Schema’s Senior Web Producer. She holds a BA in English Literature and Economics from UBC. She is also a TV addict, a movie fanatic and a bookworm.

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