As an Asian American, you can’t avoid touching on the subject of racism in the movie “Cloud Atlas,” particularly if you’re viewing it in Hawaii. Hawaii is the only state where the cultural atmosphere suddenly changes and I am part of the majority, or at least look the part despite my mainland ways. I get the same feeling when I’m in any one of Los Angeles County’s Chinatowns despite not being Chinese, yet for my Hawaiian-born husband and cousins, being part of the majority is what being at home means.
“Cloud Atlas” is confusing enough with its intertwining fragmented stories, but what is clear is the theme of hubris or karma. Hubris is a Greek term that is about a person acting in arrogance and the shaming a less powerful person for mere pleasure, yet in modern usage is also comes with a caveat: there will be punishment. If not from the gods because in Christian thought humility is preferable, from a God, and thus one says “pride goes before the fall.” (Book of Proverbs, 16:18).
Karma means deed and is an Asian term from India and part of the tradition of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikh. The deed is part of a cycle of cause and effect and the cycle itself is called samsara (now the name of a different type of movie). In the movie, more than once characters comment, “Our lives are not our own. By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” You see this concept in all monotheistic religions; it’s the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity.
You might be wondering why Hawaii is important at all in “Cloud Atlas.” Perhaps this is where some of the confusion springs from–we aren’t immediately aware of where we are when we’re in the post-apocalyptic world, the world where we see Tom Hanks as Zachry. He’s an old man, battle scarred and telling a tale of the past, before a fire. When he was younger and inhabiting the tale of “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” he is in Hawaii, but not a Hawaii that we would ever know or shall ever be and herein lies some of the racially-charged content.
The movie “Cloud Atlas” is like one of those Russian dolls, in which one nests inside another and the real charm of the dolls themselves is in their relationship to each other. There are six stories. The oldest one is “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” which follows Adam (Jim Sturgess) during his journey to the Chatham Islands in 1849. The American lawyer befriends a Moriori slave who has stowed away on his ship. The slave, Autua (David Gyasi), comes under his protection, but Adam’s friend, Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks) is treating the American for a Pacific parasitic worm while actually poisoning him.
In story two, the journal is being read in 1936 Edinburgh, Scotland by Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) who had left his male lover in Cambridge, England in order to work with a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in Edinburgh, Scotland. Frobisher is a man of questionable morals, but finds real inspiration while working with Ayrs and composes his masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” He writes letters back to his real love, Cambridge science student Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), describing the situation but not necessarily including a particular detail: he’s having an affair with Ayrs much younger wife (Halle Berry). Frobisher provides the shocking hook at the beginning of the movie–he’s committing suicide in a particularly messy way. As the movie progresses, we learn why his suicide is necessary. In the 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas,” Frobisher is in Zedelghem, Belgium and not Edinburgh.
In San Francisco (the third story), the daughter of a journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) has followed her father’s footsteps as a journalist, but now finds herself investigating a conspiracy to cover up information about the safety of a new nuclear reactor as the result of a chance meeting with Frobisher’s now middle-aged lover, Rufus (D’Arcy). Rufus will be killed and Rey will find the possibility of romance with Rufus’ co-worker Isaac (Hanks) but end up working with a former friend of her father’s, Joe Napier (Keith David). At the end, Rey will be reading Frobisher’s letters to Rufus Sixsmith and even find a rare copy of “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” as a record.
In the novel, an editor named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is reading a manuscript called “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” The Cavendish segment is comical and also starts the movie out with a bang, or splat that acts as an ominous warning to critics. The year is 2012 and Cavendish tells his violent author Dermott Hoggins (Hanks) not to mind the critic who panned his book because, “What is a critic but one who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely.” Hoggins ignores his publisher’s advice and kills the critic by throwing him off a balcony. That makes his book an instant success but Cavendish keeps all the money for himself until Hoggins’ brothers come and demand an enormous sum. Cavendish turns to his brother, but his brother (Hugh Grant) recalls the affair between his brother and his wife and has Cavendish go to a hotel which turns out to be a rest home where residents are held prisoner under the authority of Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving).
Cavendish’s tale about his incarceration and escape are made into a movie which the genetically engineered Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) has been watching in Neo-Seoul in the year 2144. Sonmi is a clone that is used to serve in a fast food restaurant. In the movie, the clones are all young women in short dresses and the audience sees young Asian women in short shorts bending over, being harassed by Asian men, young naked Asian women in a shower scene and a simulated sex scene between Bae and Broadbent. This is the only time during the movie we see bared breasts.
The clones are treated as drone slaves and then slaughtered to become meat products, but Sonmi-451 is rescued by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess,) who feels she is the one to tell her story and bring awareness to the greater human society. Her story is being recorded for the archives by an interviewer and shown in flashbacks.
The last story is 2321, 106 winters after “The Fall,” in the Hawaiian Islands. Zachry (Hanks) tells about his shameful cowardice when his family member, Adam (Sturgess), was killed by the horse-riding cannibals, the Kona, and his meeting Meronym (Berry), a member of the Prescients, the last members of a tribe who have advanced technology. Zachry guides Meronym to the Cloud Atlas so she can send a message to people who have left the earth and now live on other planets, hoping these people will be able to save them from this dying planet. The Cloud Atlas is the Mauna Kea Observatories on top of the Mauna Kea Observatories, but in the movie, it almost seems as if this place is Neo Seoul, the place where the rebels take a last stand so that Sonmi-451 can made her broadcast as the government breaks in and kills the rebels, including her lover Hae-Joo Chang.
What has actually happened is that the rebels transport Sonmi-451 to the Big Island of Hawaii and this is where she makes her broadcast. Or at least, that’s my interpretation. Zachry is clearly on the Big Island and makes references to Hawaiian geographical points.
Are the cannibals, the Kona, cultural descendants of the corporations and governments who decided clones were acceptable fodder for other clones? This isn’t clear from the movie. What is clear is that, although there are references to Hawaii by Zachry, this isn’t the Hawaii or the Hawaiian culture of today and hopefully not the future.
The racial controversy that swirls around “Cloud Atlas,” mainly focuses on the decision not to cast any Asian men but to cast South Korean actress Bae Doona and Chinese actress Zhou Xun. Bae Doona plays Tilda Ewing, wife of Adam (Sturgess) and a Mexican woman whose dog gets killed in the Luisa Rey segment, Zachry’s’ wife,
Sonmi-451, Sonmi-351 and a Sonmi prostitute. Zhou Xun plays Talbot, a hotel manager who doesn’t seem to realize that there’s a phone in the room where a guest commits suicide and leaves to call the police, and Yoona-939 and Rose. However, Broadbent dons yellowface to portray a Korean musician, James D’Arcy as a Korean archivist, Keith David as An-Kor Apis and, most infamously, Sturgess as
Hae-Joo Chang. The yellowface tends to look unnatural, drawing the viewer out of the story and reminding one of a Star Trek Vulcan (Screen Crush’s Matt Singer suggests Star Trek Romulans, but the conclusion is the same–yellowface makes them look more alien than human. In both cases, the references are to Star Trek: The Original Series). I’m not sure that this is what the Wachoskis had in mind.
Similarly, Bae Doona as Tilda Ewing doesn’t look quite right, but not as audaciously and comically silly as Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes. This Agent Smith isn’t in disguise; he’s a man in drag meant to look like a man in drag. If makeup artists can make Robin Williams (for the 1993 “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and Dustin Hoffman (for the 1982 “Tootsie”) convincing women, surely in 2012 they could have done the same for Weaving.
Berry as Jocasta Ayrs also isn’t quite convincing: See her, you know something isn’t quite right in a way that’s similar with seeing many former brunettes gone blonde. Sure it makes her more shocking or striking but is that really the purpose? She already has the weight of the ominous name, Jocasta. In Greek mythology, Jocasta was the wife of Laius and then wife and mother of Oedipus.
Yet there are more subtle and unsettling themes that could be viewed as racist. The people of Zachry’s tribe are primarily white, unlike the current and projected population of Hawaii. The current population of Hawaii is 38.6 percent Asian, 24.7 percent white (with only 22.7 percent non-Hispanic white alone), 23.6 percent of two or more races, 10 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders, 8.9 Hispanic and Latinos of any race and 1.6 black or African American. Hawaii has the lowest percentage of white Americans than any other state. One wonders why the directors decided that Chinese actor Zhou Xun needed to look more Caucasian in order to be a member of Zachry’s tribe (The later usage of the whiteface on Bae Doona as the wife of Adam Ewing is understandable although not entirely convincing). According to hair.color.wikia.com, black is the most common hair color with brown coming in second. If you look around Hawaii, the majority of people have dark hair and that’s true for most of the Pacific Islanders. Yet Zachry’s tribe all have medium brown to blonde hair.
In Hawaii, the movie makers missed an opportunity to contrast the casual and culturally accepted nakedness that was characteristic of Pacific Islanders prior to Victorian Christianity with the sleazy sexualized nakedness of the Asian clone-slaves of Neo Seoul. It was not only the hot weather that encouraged the native dress but the lack of cotton plantations and fields. The Pacific islands did not have the culture, land or climate for the production of the raw materials for cotton, linen, silks and satins. This makes the cotton rags of Zachry’s tribe puzzling, as if they are natives of a Mediterranean climate and dressed as serfs from a different era.
Zachry’s tribe fears the Kona who have their faces painted and ride horses that seem very European. Kona is not just the name of a coffee in Hawaii, it means leeward or downwind in Hawaiian. In ancient times, each island had a leeward district. In modern Hawaii, Kona is a district on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii.
This is a different district than the one inhabited by the paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys, who were generally in the North Kohala and Waimea districts. Waimea is where the two astronomical observatories are located (on Mauna Kea). Horses were introduced to the Big Island of Hawaii in 1803 after five black longhorn cattle were released (1798) and allowed to free range. By 1816, there were thousands of maverick cows and John Palmer Parker, husband of King Kamehameha I’s granddaughter Kipikane, was given permission to wrangle the cows and ranch. Parker brought over Mexican vaqueros in 1832 and began the paniolo tradition. There are dude ranches and even some working ranches currently on the Big Island, most of them seem to use stock horses, a type of horse based on or derived from the American Quarter Horse.
The suggestion of the movie “Cloud Atlas” is that the paniolos no longer herd cattle, but, as the Kona, prefer to eat the meat of small pockets of survivors like Zachry’s tribe. Like the Asian civilization of Neo Seoul, cannibalism is a viable solution and we see a parallelism between the corporate society of Neo Seoul and the savagery of the Kona.
The film comes two years after former Talk Radio Network host Michael Savage made a comment on his syndicated show about Hawaii and cannibalism, “I loved Hawaii I lived there many many years, it’s an interesting all syllables. But you don’t know about that are they going to be independent very soon. I don’t know how they’re going to make a living, they’re going to kick the white man out then what they going to have cannibalism again. Oops sorry.” No one really believes that Michael Savage is sorry, but the accusations of cannibalism, true or not, persist in relation to African and Pacific Islanders.
Captain Cook was killed on Kealakekua Bay which is on the Kona coast, but that was in 1779 (February 14). There have been accusations of cannibalism in the death of Captain Cook, however, according to the 2003 book “Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer,” this was not the case. Yet the movie “Cloud Atlas” seems to use cannibalism as a sign of reverting to a base and immoral savagery–the lowest form of civilization with or without technology. The audience might think that even the Nazis didn’t go as far as eating their victims.
Hugh Grant might be unrecognizable as the Kona leader, but he looks clearly Caucasian to me although that might not be the concept of the directors. He has clearly “gone native.” The tattoos seem to be of a snake although there is only one native Hawaiian snake that looks more like a worm.
I haven’t been to the Big Island, but I have been to Seoul and Neo Seoul of the movie could be any East Asian city and yet is like no Asian city. It has no character. Coming from Tokyo’s Narita airport and landing in Seoul, the very smells of the city tell you where you are. Then the colors and the aesthetics. Americans are often offended by the Koreans taste for dog meat and I have seen sad dogs waiting to be butchered.
The segments if Neo Seoul seem uninfluenced by the manufactured boy and girl band trends and the modernization of furniture that has Koreans sleeping on beds just as Americans, Europeans and Chinese. The most telling aspect of this non-specific East Asian depiction of the Neo Seoul
apartment that Hae-Joo Chang and Sonmi-451 take refuge in. The cherry blossoms become the moving wallpaper. While cherry blossoms bloom and are celebrated in Korea, their national flower is the hibiscus syriacus or Rose of Sharon which symbolizes immortality. The cherry blossom in Japan symbolizes impermanence.
Seoul, unlike Japan, has a large Christian population. In 2005, with 46 percent of South Koreans expressing no particular religious faith, 29.2 percent identified themselves as Christians (with 10.9 percent as Catholic). Compare this to the 22.8 percent who identified themselves as Buddhist. In Japan, Christians make up only one percent or less of the population. In Thailand, less than one percent. In Taiwan, the figure is 4.5 percent and includes Mormons. The influence of Christianity is erased in Neo Seoul. Yet what we know about the Holocaust is that some people were moved by their faith in God to resist the Nazis. Christian abolitionists were also instrumental in the fall of slavery in the United States. Yet in the movie, religion only seems significant in a shamanistic way for Zachry and his tribe.
The casting of black British actor David Gyasi has also gone under some scrutiny. He plays Autua, a Moriori man. The Moriori have been described as peaceful and of small stature and dark-skinned. Gyasi isn’t easily identified as a Moriori, or Pacific Islander, and Screen Crush critic Singer saw him as an African slave. An easy mistake and more than likely something that added to the confusion.
This isn’t to say that Pacific Islanders haven’t been played by people of African descent before or haven’t been considered black. People of African descent have played Pacific Islanders before, most notably in “South Pacific.” Juanita Long played the Tonkinese “Bloody Mary” on Broadway and became the first African American to win a Tony in 1950. She also played a Chinese American in “Flower Drum Song.” France Nuyen, a French-Vietnamese actor, played Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat. Nellie Forbush’s problem with the handsome Emile is his prior relationship with a native woman resulting in mixed race children. Forbush is from the South (Little Rock, Arkansas). Emile had lived with a woman who wasn’t white and wasn’t yellow. She wasn’t Javanese or Tonkinese. She was Polynesian and “To Nellie’s tutored mind any person living or dead who was not white or yellow was a nigger.” (In the book, Emile had eight daughters to four women and only one was Polynesian. The musical changes Emile’s background to two children from one Polynesian woman.)
The Moriori are Polynesians and dark skinned as are the more war-like Maoris who defeated them. Captain James Cook also met with the Maori and there are credible accounts of Maori cannibalism. What besides the mention of the Chatham Islands and the Pacific parasitic worm could the movie directors have done to make the place clearer to movie viewers? Would the casting of a different actor, someone who perhaps looked more Polynesian or Pacific Islander have helped? Or did the Wachoskis mean for us to have the uncertainty of place? If so, why only in the non-European segments?
“Cloud Atlas” was actually filmed in Duselldorf, German, Port de Sóller, Mallorca, Baleraric Islands, Spain, Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain, Edinburgh, Scotland (UK), Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland (UK), and at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. Mallorca and the Baleraric Islands stood in for Hawaii. Yet not all islands can sub for the tropical paradise known as the Big Island.
There are other problems of logic tied into conventions of TV and movies. Why don’t the Prescients have a better way of scaling the cliffs if they have crafts that can hover of the ocean? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by watching too many Batman movies.
When the gang of bad guys, supposedly government agents break into the love nest of Somni-451 and Hae-Joo Chang, they cannot hit the two lovers as the two slowly attempt to escape via a self-generating bridge from their window to the next building. My husband blames George Lucas because the Storm Troopers of Star Wars are only good shots during the first part of the movie and then reduced to can’t shoot the side of a barn buffoons.
Pursuing bad guys have a similar problem in the segment “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” but this is something often seen in police and similar TV dramas. We’re used to that illogic, but both cases of faulty marksmanship detract from the serious intent of the movie. In a way, both the author and the directors have it all ways: The six stories cover so many genres there is almost something to please everyone despite the troubling portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders. That’s odd because Hawaii seems to be a place where clouds of many types are seen and offer the opportunity for rainbows. We saw several including the rare triple rainbow during our latest brief visit there.
A cloud atlas is much like an atlas for countries except it serves as a key for identifying clouds. Jean-Baptieste Lamarck published an atlas classifying and naming clouds in French in 1801. Luke Howard published the first English language cloud atlas in 1802. In 1890, an expensive book called “Cloud Atlas” was published by Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, Wladimir Koppen and Georg von Neumayer. The book’s success led to the “International Cloud Atlas” in 1896.
The importance of understanding clouds and their meaning increased not because of the human interest in small talk but it could be used to predict weather. With the beginning of human flight, weather became more important as anyone whose flight has been weather-delayed knows. The atlas was meant to serve as an aid to training meteorologists toward a more consistent descriptive vocabulary for clouds. Unlike an geographic atlas that defined nations, boundaries and borders, a cloud atlas was about a natural phenomena that was not bound by artificial man-made borders. Clouds are part of the universal experience of weather.
The movie “Cloud Atlas” ambitiously attempts to show a karmic cycle, the application of the Golden Rule in seven different stories, yet the movie does seem to reflect a troubling racist bias. That is to say, I don’t feel that the directors overcame the problem which they attempt to expose–the artificial boundaries of racial prejudice and sexism.