Occasionally on this site I’ll post an entry about some other aspect of Korean culture that has nothing to do with golf. This week I give my review of the new movie Cloud Atlas, which co-stars my favorite young Korean actress, Bae Doo Na, in her first English language role.
Cloud Atlas, which opened in the US on October 26th, is an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell. The book came out in 2004, and though I haven’t read it, many reviews claim that it’s almost impossible to imagine someone adapting it to the screen. But the Wachowski Siblings, creators of The Matrix, and Tom Tykwer, most famous for Run Lola Run, have done just that, and their effort is a by and large successful film that is far more involving and fun than you would expect. Though the movie clocks in at nearly 3 hours, it is possibly the most involving, fast moving three-hour movie I’ve ever seen.
Perhaps the most challenging thing about the movie is describing the plot. The movie has a fairly complicated narrative involving 500 years of human history. More specifically, the story breaks into six different short stories, each set in a different era from the past to the far future, but the short stories are all interconnected in various ways to make one large overarching narrative. What makes the movie work, and the most exciting and simultaneously alienating thing about it, is that the individual stories, though interesting in and of themselves, become much more gratifying when told as part of this bigger historic tapestry.
The six stories are:
- In 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), the son-in-law of a slave trader, goes to the South Seas to arrange a deal with the owners of a plantation there, and has his eyes opened to the horrors his family is helping to perpetrate.
- In the 1930s, a young gay man named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) goes to work for a famous composer (Jim Broadbent), and both men are hoping to take advantage of the other to come out with a career defining musical work.
- In the 1970s, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a reporter who gets in over her head when she discovers a scandal at a nuclear power plant run by Hugh Grant.
- In the current day, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a publisher who hides out from the mob in an old age home, and discovers that getting in was a lot easier than getting out.
- In 22nd century Seoul, a ‘fabricant’ (a clone slave grown in a special breeding dome) named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) becomes aware of her life situation and works with a rebel (Sturgess again) to change the world for the better.
- In the far future, after the world has suffered a catastrophe, a goat herder named Zacchary (Tom Hanks) helps a woman from a more advanced tribe (Halle Berry) while fighting off deadly cannibals (including Hugh Grant (!!) ).
The directors wisely abandoned the structure of the novel, in which the writer tells half of each story in chronological order, then, like a spool of thread winding back on itself, finishes them in reverse order until reaching the oldest one. Instead, they have chosen to intermix the vignettes throughout the film. Cloud Atlas starts in overwhelming fashion, with a wild montage of scenes from all six episodes, before settling in with a lengthy introduction to each segment in order. After we get through that, things get really interesting. The rest of the film has the action constantly switching between eras, matching actions that resonate with each other either by theme, or character, or even similar set pieces, such as characters being in danger. Someone in a scene might mention a door, for instance, which cues a door opening in another era. Or a chase scene in one segment will segue into another one in a different time.
Another interesting decision was to cast the six segments with the same basic set of actors, who thus appear as different characters depending on which era is currently being shown. The actors freely change ages, race and even gender in some of the sections. For instance, many of the non-Asian stars appear as Koreans in the futuristic Seoul segment. Similarly, Korean star Doona Bae appears as a Caucasian in one part of the film, and as a Mexican in another, while Chinese actress Zhou Xun also appears as a blonde in the far future story, and as a man elsewhere.
After a little bit of a learning curve as the audience tries to absorb all the different storylines, the film becomes surprisingly easy to follow and at times very involving. Internally, each story is told in chronological order, so the switching between them begins to feel a little like a restless kid flipping channels on a rainy day. At times, it’s a bit frustrating to be absorbed in one dramatic segment, only to have the film shift somewhere else. There are a few cases where a character suffers a devastating loss; in a normal film, the viewer would have some time to process this and empathize with the character, but suddenly that story might be suspended as we shift to find out how Halle Berry is doing in 1973. Fortunately, there are other times when this ADD approach adds a lot of power to the film. In one case (very slight spoiler, but no specifics!), a character is about to die, and muses about how the character will someday rejoin a dead lover in some other era. We cut to a scene of the same actors as different characters being reunited after a long separation, revealing that they are in fact lovers in that (past) era. Just as we feel the devastation of the first character’s loss, we suddenly are uplifted by the realization that their souls do get a happy ending of sorts. Powerful moments like this are only made possible by the movie’s unusual methodology.
Conveniently, the six segments have a parallel construction. In each era, we have one character who is the Rebel, fighting oppression of some sort in order to make the world a better place. This character is marked by a comet shaped birthmark somewhere on his/her body. Some reviewers believe this means that these six characters are all the same reincarnated soul, but I believe that the soul passage can be determined by the actor playing the characters, meaning several different people get to be the Rebel in different eras. Another recurring figure is the Helper, a character who is there to help the Rebel on his/her journey, and yet another reappearing character type represents repression (interestingly, this character is often played by Hugo Weaving). So for instance, in the 1849 segment, Adam Ewing is the Rebel, a slave he meets is the Helper, and Adam’s father-in-law (played by Hugo Weaving) is there to try to enforce the world’s order. In the future world, it is Sonmi (Bae) who is the Rebel, while Sturgess’ character Hae Joo Chang is now the Helper and Hugo Weaving (again!) is the Oppressor. This similarity of construction in the six mini-stories allows them to flow freely from one to another, creating a force that the individual stories themselves would not possess.
One fun game to play while watching the film is following which actor’s soul seems to ascend karmically over time, and which ones continue to be nasty, lifetime after lifetime. Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant seem to be pretty much terrible in every lifetime; Weaving’s character winds up being little more than an apparition in the final segment, an embodiment of the devil himself. Grant seems to be having a ball playing one scumbag after another; I guess his mute cannibal in the final story is the worst, but not by much (and one can only wonder what Notting Hill might have been like had Grant’s character there been more like this vicious fellow!). Tom Hanks has the best multi-character arc, as his characters start out being outright villains and work their way towards being heroes by the last segment.
The idea of using the same actors for multiple parts has garnered a bit of controversy for the film in that sometimes the actors play different sexes (Weaving makes for a terrifying nurse in the Cavendish segment) or races. This means that Bae Doona and Halle Berry play white women, but also that several of the white actors play Koreans. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to be offended by the film, but personally I think they are missing the point. The film is saying that all the things people use to judge, classify and oppress others – race, gender, sexual preference, even whether someone is a clone or natural-born – is just surface detail, and that what is really important is the soul underneath. If, as some critics suggest, the Neo Seoul segment had been the only one to not contain the usual actors from the rest of the film, and instead had substituted Korean actors only appearing in that story, it would have blown apart this entire theme (would the new theme become: we are all the same under the skin – unless we are Asian, in which case we are not?). And if they had chosen to ‘whitewash’ that segment by changing its setting to, say, San Francisco, that would have generated plenty of criticism, too. And besides, if one of the main complaints about ‘yellowface’ is that it denies Asian actors good roles, keep in mind that only Sturgess has a really juicy role as a Korean; the other roles are barely bit parts. Meanwhile, arguably the best role in the movie, Sonmi 451, goes to a Korean actress few in the West have heard of. And it’s not a clichéd ‘Asian’ role like a geisha, kung fu expert or ninja, but a full-blooded three-dimensional character with the most heroic impact of anyone in the film (Natalie Portman was originally considered for the role). Name another major Hollywood film where that has happened; they are few and far between, if indeed even one other example exists!
It should come as no surprise that my favorite segment of the film is the Sonmi-451 future Seoul section. Doona Bae is possibly my favorite actress in the world right now, and I have been waiting with bated breath to see how she would do in her first Hollywood film. Not surprisingly, she knocks it out of the park. Sonmi has the largest character arc of anyone in the film, changing from a naïve working drone with limited capability to understand her life’s situation to a bold freedom fighter who risks her life to change her world. Bae hits all the notes of the character perfectly, communicating with her eyes and expressive face all the pain, confusion, wonder and defiance you would expect. It’s hard to believe the childlike Sonmi from early in the film is played by the same actress as the later one, so convincing is her transformation. And she also gets to briefly play several other Sonmis (there are multiple fabricants created from the same cell base), including one in the throes of religious exultation and another reduced to being a street prostitute. Her only occasional problem comes with a few of the English lines she has to speak, when the intonation and emphasis she uses is a bit off. That’s wholly understandable given the fact she was learning English as she worked. For the most part, she navigates the new language well, certainly better than many other foreign language actresses I’ve seen given similar challenges. There are other moments where she handles English beautifully: she gives the movie’s most electrifying speech when she delineates to her friend Chang exactly what she feels needs to be done to destroy the oppressive regime. Her words in this scene could cut granite, despite being barely above a whisper.
In truth, I liked all the segments and think they all served their functions in the film well. The Cavendish current-day section is not only really funny, but surprisingly poignant during a train ride where he reflects on his past mistakes. The Frobisher classical music segment is filled to the brim with tension as Frobisher tries to manipulate his situation in a world where a gay man is considered a criminal, and where he has everything to gain or lose depending on how he plays his cards. Refreshingly, this story takes his homosexuality as merely a facet of his character as opposed to the whole crux of the story, which a lesser film might do. Ben Whishaw does a fantastic job of giving this fairly amoral character gravitas and heart. The Ewing segment has one cheer-out-loud moment and another among the film’s most tearjerking (I won’t spoil them here!), and Bae has a memorable cameo in the 1970’s segment. The far future part is probably the one that is the hardest to accept, because the characters all speak a weird future-world patois that is extremely tough to understand (for my part, I started to ignore the details of what they were saying and just tried to hear key words). Hanks does his best work here, and it is hard not to be totally invested in his story as he tries to protect his family and friends while doing battle with cannibal Hugh Grant and his evil hordes. I also want to call out Jim Broadbent, who plays three significant roles in the film, all very different and all very memorable. It’s hard to believe the same guy plays the pompous composer, the surly, racist ship’s captain in the Ewing segment AND the goofy charlatan Cavendish in the 2012 portion. His captain looks like he could break you in two, but the composer uses a cane and venomous words as his weapons of choice.
The description of the film, its marketing and its length might make it seem like a bit of a trudge, but this is the fastest paced three-hour movie I’ve ever seen. There is literally something for everyone: doomed love affairs, beautiful cinematography, costume drama, clones, laser battles, gorgeous music, crossbows, gun battles, two dystopian future worlds (a Blade-Runner-like one and a Mad-Max-like one), high-speed chases, cannibals, soccer hooligans, violence, groovy 70s clothes, even a smattering of nudity and sex. The film can be enjoyed on a superficial level because, once you get over the learning curve of who everyone is, the story proceeds in a pretty straightforward way, and it never slows down (indeed, at times it’s almost too fast paced!). It’s also fun to play detective (was that really Hugo Weaving in that scene??), and even on first viewing I caught several interesting connections between the segments (for instance, note how many of the segments involve cannibalism in some way – I caught references to it in at least four of the six sections). I’m not sure there is any deeper meaning to the film; I doubt I will suddenly have an ‘a-ha’ moment in which all the pieces of the film magically fall into place during some future viewing. And to be sure, there is plenty of stuff that doesn’t work: it can be overblown at times, the makeup is hit and miss (I loved Doona as a white woman, but this seems a minority opinion on the net. But try to identify Chinese actress Zhou Xun as a white woman – her makeup is astounding). And my biggest complaint is that the accelerated pace works against it at times. I had about fifty questions in the Sonmi section alone, but for example, why is it so important to the rebellion that they get a Fabricant to join them? How will this get their message across to the jaded population of that future world? How does a key character survive a seemingly certain death? And how exactly did this Sonmi fabricant become aware when most of the others (even other Sonmis) did not? And what made them decide that this Sonmi was the one that had the ‘rebel’ potential? I sort of know the answers, but just a few more minutes spent explaining some of this would have helped a lot.
But this is a minor complaint. If I gave star awards, I would say Cloud Atlas is a 3.5 out of four star movie. It’s entertaining, at times quite moving, cheesy, exciting, beautiful to look at and listen to, and quite unlike anything else out in theaters right now. Not perfect, not a masterpiece, but definitely worth seeing.
[Weird coincidence department: Jim Sturgess first became well-known playing a character named ‘Jude’ in the Beatles music film Across the Universe. Of course, that name comes from the Beatles song ‘Hey Jude’. In Cloud Atlas, he plays a character named Hae Joo, and I found myself constantly thinking, ‘Hae Joo/don’t make it bad/take a sad song…’ etc. Hey Jude/Hae Joo: How’s that for a strange unintended synchronicity?]