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Race b(l)ending: the strange case of the film ‘Cloud Atlas’

This week I watched the film Cloud Atlas, which is based on the David Mitchell novel of the same name. I recently read the novel and really liked it, so, I wasn’t keen to watch the movie. After all, film versions of much-loved novels rarely live up to expectations.

I was somewhat reluctant to watch it for another reason: I had read that in scenes set in a futuristic dystopian Korea, characters who are supposed to be Korean are played by Caucasian actors made up to look Korean. Why in this day and age would you use Caucasian actors for non-Caucasian characters? In a time when communication and travel between countries and continents is the easiest it has ever been, why couldn’t the film-makers hire actors with the right heritage or ‘look’ for the role?

I suspected that this strange aspect of the film had something to do with the way the characters in the novel are connected across time, geography, language and cultures. The novel consists of six separate sections, each telling a different story with different characters set in different eras, in different parts of the world. Each of the stories is connected to the previous one by one or two characters. The overall themes of souls connected through time, and actions reverberating throughout history, glue together these otherwise individual stories.

For this reason I can understand why you might use a few actors to play different characters in the different stories – to convey the sense of connection between the stories and characters. The film, however, uses a number of actors to play various characters, both minor and major roles, throughout it. That in itself is not a problem. It just becomes strange when a male Caucasian actor plays a number of different minor roles, including a Korean security official and a female nurse. Considering the variety of roles the actors play (not all of them connected), the race and gender bending aspects do not add anything of value to the movie. They just serve as distractions.

6794Several Caucasian actors play Korean characters, and there are also non-Caucasian actors who play characters who are Caucasian and other ethnicities/races, all to varying degrees of believability. The most offensive aspect of all this is the unconvincing, and generally very bad make-up used to change an actor’s ‘race’. Rather than feeling outraged, the effect was howls of laughter. It is embarrassingly bad. This begs the question – why use the same actors for so many roles they are not suited for? What the bad make-up does is the opposite of its objective. It brings into glaring focus the actors’ actual facial features – their ethnic or racial heritage could not be hidden. It would have been better if no attempt was made to change the actors’ features to look like another race in the first place. It might be less distracting and possibly taken more seriously.

Apart from the race-bending and gender-bending, there is also some age-bending, and unintentional accent-bending. Again, only managing to elicit more laughter.

The oddest race bending exercise in the film are the scenes from the voyage across the South Pacific in the mid 1800s. The ship sails to a number of Polynesian islands, where the local population appear to be African! This particular ‘race swap’ is just puzzling. There is not a single Polynesian-looking person in any of those scenes. This part of the movie makes the least amount of sense. Is it trying to draw a more obvious connection with abolitionism? Are people so ignorant that they can only identify slavery and colonial oppression with Africans and no other groups? Or, are most non-Caucasian peoples interchangeable?

Another odd part of the film is the highly sexualised way it portrays the female ‘fabricants’ in the futuristic dystopian Korea. The female Korean characters are sexualised to a degree that is not obvious in the novel. Not in my reading of it any way. In fact, many female characters, central to the novel in several of the stories, are either reduced to minor characters or disappear altogether.

Films based on novels with long and complex plot lines and numerous characters are often too ambitious to do justice to the novels. Film is another medium and tells a story very differently to a novel. However, novels like Cloud Atlas are perhaps better suited to interpretation by a television series. It provides the necessary time for plot lines and characters to develop and for stories to be told well and with much of the nuance of the novel intact. Perhaps the connections between characters and stories could be subtly explored rather than blatantly using the same actors to play characters of different gender, race and age just to make the point.

The movie also drastically changes one of the central features of the novel – its structure. The novel has a circular structure, where five of the six stories are split into two and told in chronological order in the first half of the novel and then told in reverse chronological order in the second half. Only the sixth story is told from beginning to end without interruption. This structure adds a certain mystery and anticipation to each story, and actually makes sense in the way the novel sews the stories together. The film  butchers the structure, and instead opts for short incomprehensible scenes filled with action, and weaves in and out of the separate stories, resulting in a confused and incoherent telling of the stories. Only snippets of the six stories are given, despite it being nearly three hours long. Chunks of storyline and characters are dispensed with or completely changed. There are so many changes and additions to plot lines that even having read the book, I wasn’t sure what was going happen next.

The film plays with race in more interesting ways than I expected. The way it uses actors and characters of different races and ethnicities is not all bad. Some of it was surprisingly refreshing. A number of characters who in the novel are presumably Caucasian appear as Asian and African-American characters. Not something you see that often.

Contrary to my expectations, I didn’t find the race bending/blending aspects too offensive. This may be because I spent so much time laughing at the ridiculous make-up on offer. The incredibly bad make-up, numerous changes to plot lines, and lack of coherence makes the movie farcical, and at the end it is just entertaining, but not in the way it is intended.

There are many problems with this film, the first being it picks a story which is too complex to tell in this medium. The way it experiments with race produces mixed results. It does much worse with gender. I wasn’t disappointed with the movie only because I honestly had no expectations of liking it, though I was surprised at how much it made me laugh. My advice is READ THE BOOK! It is far more satisfying.


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