The ensemble fantasy cost a reported $102 million to make but earned just $85 million globally—making it one of the biggest domestic flops in recent years.
But it’s a different story in China, where “Cloud Atlas” is a surprise hit.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film has taken in $16 million (100 million Yuan), since it was released in the country on January 31.
The news is particularly curious, considering that some within the Asian-American community publically opposed the film prior to its October North American release, angered by the use of makeup and prosthetics to make non-Asian actors appear as Asian characters.
Based on the 2005 novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” intertwines six different storylines set in a wide range of time periods and locations; several of its stars – like Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent – play multiple roles, inhabiting characters of different races and genders.
The film, which was not a favorite of most critics or audiences, was blasted by Guy Aoki, founded the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), for featuring white actors in so-called “yellowface.”
One segment of “Cloud Atlas” features actors James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving as Korean men, in what Aoki felt was a lazy and insulting manner.
"In the modern age of movie make up, it is disturbing to see poorly done Asian eye prosthetics to make Caucasian men look Asian,” Aoki said in a statement. “The race-changing make-up totally disrupted the flow of the film. The old yellowface movie characters of the past like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan looked more realistic than the characters in ‘Cloud Atlas.’ Why couldn't they have cast a handsome Asian American actor of mixed race to play the multiple roles in Neo Seoul and the other time periods? It would have made the movie more believable.
"It appears that to turn white and black actors into Asian characters (black actor Keith David was also Asian in the 2144 story), the make-up artists believed they only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion,” he continued. “In two scenes in other segments of the film, Bae and Zhou are made up to appear Caucasian. The filmmakers obviously took more care to make them look convincingly white. The message the movie sends is, it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes.”
Lana Wachowski has said that the film aims to blur racial and gender lines.
Among the roles Halle Berry plays in the film are a South Asian party guest and German-Jewish seductress while Korean actress Doona Bae portrays both white and Latina characters.
“Thematically, it transcends boundaries of race and gender, location and time, and tells a story that implies the nature of humanity is beyond all those boundaries,” she said in a statement. “That’s what intrigued us when we read the novel and then when we started working on the script.”
There are a few conceivable explanations for why “Cloud Atlas” has fared well in China.
First, the film, which has a near three-hour runtime, was trimmed by 40 minutes at the hands of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT).
Scenes that were cut include passionate love scenes between Sturgess and Bae. Much of the same-sex love story between Whishaw and D’Arcy also hit the chopping block, since SARFT prohibits portrayals of homosexuality.
According to the essay “Pioneering the New Chinese Cinema,” by Evelyn Jacobson, there is no rating system for films released in China, meaning each film must be suitable for all audiences prior to its release.
Hollywood.com reports that several expository sequences were removed from “Cloud Atlas” while some of the more violent scenes were left in. The choice to include these sequences in lieu of “passionate” moments is a testament to the country’s sometimes inconsistent and often protested censorship decisions.
Though the edits may have on some level compromised the overall vision of the directors, the overlong film likely benefited from the revision—which also removed scenes that did not further the plot (scenes the star-studded U.S. release was full of).
The film’s Chinese trailer predominately features scenes of high-octane action and explosions while the more marketable futuristic storyline is the focus. By contrast, the U.S. trailer is far for sentimental and includes less popcorn-friendly fare.
Dreams of Dragon Pictures Co., the production company that distributed the film in the region, invested over $10 million into the drama. According to China.org, that makes “Cloud Atlas” the recipient of the largest sum of money a Chinese film company has put into a foreign product.
The investment accounts for film’s second largest foreign source of funds, which may have helped Chinese actresses Zhou Xun and Zhu Zhu earn places in the cast.
Wachowski’s films have long been popular with Chinese audiences: “The Matrix” trilogy was a a massive hit in the country while the siblings’ 2008 flop “Speed Racer” pulled in a decent $3 million at the Chinese box office.
It was reported by China Daily in 2011 that the Wachowski’s acclaimed 1996 noir “Bound,” which was not released internationally, wound be remade by director Danny Chao expressly for Chinese audiences. According to the site, the Chinese version will focus on the rivalry between two sisters as opposed to a lesbian relationship like the original.
As for the alleged racist undertones in “Cloud Atlas,” Cynthia Brothers, a spokesperson for the Asian American organization 18 Million Rising, has a few theories as to why that didn’t deter Chinese film goers.
“There are of course differences in the history of racism as experienced by Asians in the diaspora, which may help explain the difference in audience reception in America and China,” Brothers said. “Additionally, as China's GDP and economic status has risen, so has its consumption of entertainment, including that Western and Hollywood films, which could also explain its financial success.”
Aoki believes that Xun’s role may also have a hand in the film’s success.
“I think the movie posters emphasize Zhou Xun (an actress from China) and her ‘Korean’ boyfriend more, so it creates interest in the film,” he said. “Asian nationals don't understand intricate issues of race like yellowface, lack of Asian actors playing roles, etc.”
Character actor and MANAA president Aki Aleong believes the film’s favorable reception in China is due to the country’s acceptance of Western ideas.
“The Chinese, as well as other countries in Asia, have an identity problem,” Aleong said. “They're greatly influenced by the United States, believing anything coming out of the U.S. is better than what comes out of their own countries. The most popular surgery in China is eye surgery, to ‘de-slant’ their eyes to look whiter. People change the color of their hair, etc. It's considered "marrying up" for Chinese people to marry white men. With all of these issues combined, a white guy wearing bad Asian make-up is not offensive.
“The make-up isn't convincing enough for these white men to pass as Asian,” he continued,“but many Chinese people are trying to look white themselves, so the lines are blurred regarding what Asian people are supposed to look like.”