Culture wars: Cloud Atlas yellowface casting

I click my fingers and … you’re back in the 1950s. It looks as if the culture wars are well and truly on with some utterly barking casting decisions being made across ye olde Western Empire. In Britain, Germany and America, Mighty Whitey is asserting its last remnants of power in a changing world, like a dinosaur thrashing in its death throes.

On the frontline, catching the bronto tail full in the chops, are the East Asians, with the Royal Shakespeare Company giving only three out of 17 roles in their adaptation of the ancient Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang, to actors of Asian heritage: two to work a puppet dog and one to a maid who dies. No lead roles went to East Asians, with one reason given for the paucity of limelight on offer being that it is running alongside Bertold Brecht’s Gallileo and Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov.

Sadly, as no Asians are considered “Godunov” to play white characters, numbers had to be kept down across the other two plays. Never mind that Pushkin was part Ethiopean, we have to continue the fantasy that real civilised arts come from white males and everything else is ersatz.

In Germany, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris retracted the rights to his play, Clybourne Park, when the German company cast a white actor to play a black woman in blackface make-up.

And now we have a proper throwback to yellowface complete with taped-up eyes in Cloud Atlas. All the main male roles in futuristic South Korea are played by white actors Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving.

This is particularly sad because co-director Larry Wachowski is now Lana following her gender reassignment. You’d hope that she’d have been sensitive to other minorities struggling to be seen and respected. Lana and Andy Wachowski create a world where you can have “cannibals, parasitic brain worms and an artichoke that shoots laser beams” — the full bells-and-whistles panoply of screen trickery — but they can’t imagine East Asians playing East Asians.

It’s like the La Jolla Playhouse public debate over The Nightingale never happened.

What’s their excuse? That they don’t have great — and I mean GREAT! — East Asian actors? Think of Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim and Lucy Liu breaking new ground as Dr Watson in the new US TV Sherlock Holmes series, Elementary. Couldn’t they have found one to join in the cross-race fun? Is white the default universal mode? [Edit: Kathryn Golding says there is an Asian woman who plays a white bloke, so it’s not completely awful.]

The guiding principle(!)of some of the deadheads running things seems to be, “What’s ours is ours and what’s yours is ours as well, slant-features.” Don’t you want your world enriched by the amazing diversity out there? Do you have to keep on insulting us and pretending we don’t exist in your shrinking imagination?


Looking like a Romulan left over from Star Trek: Nemesis, Hugo Weaving should stick to Elves and Matrix software, about as real as the Korean folk into whom he’s supposed to be breathing life on the big screen.

Remember: “First they came for the East Asians but, because I wasn’t East Asian and was doing all right by Boss Man and had landed a juicy role in The Orphan of Zhao, I went into crush-kill-destroy mode on the RSC Facebook thread, swatting the little yellow people out of the way. Then, emboldened, they made with the blackface and I was out of a job.”

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

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