The South Korean actress makes her Hollywood debut in the ambitious and somewhat controversial Cloud Atlas.
by STEVE HAN
In the futuristic world of Neo Seoul in 2144, a genetically engineered Sonmi-451 finds herself enslaved as a restaurant server in an apocalyptic totalitarian society. Much of East Asia is now flooded, and Neo Seoul remains as the region’s last surviving land, but it has long been dehumanized by extreme capitalism.
Sonmi has been wired to live her brief existence on earth as a slave confined at a village. Then: She meets Hae-Joo Chang, the first pureblood who is kind to her, and learns that there’s a larger human world.
In Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas, the mysterious yet captivating character Sonmi is played by Bae Doona, a top South Korean actress making her Hollywood debut. Her cast mates include household names such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant.
“I’m a traditional Asian woman,” Bae told KoreAm, chuckling. “I’ve always been taught to be extra humble and polite. So adjusting to a new culture itself was a huge challenge for me.”
Starring in a Hollywood film wasn’t the only thing new to Bae. Cloud Atlas, based on David Mitchell’s bestselling novel, is a different breed of film altogether. The movie blends drama, mystery and action by creating human connections between six different stories, spanning five centuries from 1849 to 2346.
The entire cast of Cloud Atlas plays multiple characters throughout the film’s six interwoven stories, but it was Bae’s standout performance as Sonmi which The New Yorker touted as a “revelation.”
“I was so confused when I first read the script,” Bae said, in Korean. “[The] only thing I understood was that there were a lot of characters. It was so confusing to a point where I didn’t even understand the actual story.
“But even then, I soon fell in love with what I saw in Sonmi. Her life story was just so touching. Then once I understood the movie as a whole, I appreciated how it created the connections between the stories, which were both inevitable and coincidental. The birth and rebirth of each character were fascinating.”
Cloud Atlas won numerous plaudits for its artistic approach and unique storyline, but some advocacy groups have criticized its alleged racial insensitivity. The controversy centers on Jim Sturgess starring as both San Francisco attorney Adam Ewing in 1849 and as Asian freedom fighter Hae-Joo Chang.
While the film’s aim was to have its cast play against gender and ethnicity, critics are pointing out Sturgess’ prosthetic makeup in order to portray an Asian person is akin to postmodern yellowface.
However, Bae argues that those who watch the film and come to understand the human element of it will likely serve to mute the controversy. She believes that Sturgess was the best fit to play Chang given how the story of the film was structured.
“It’s something that will become a bygone once people watch the film,” Bae said. “Someone who watches the film will understand why Sturgess had to play Chang. It’s because he also played Adam Ewing, which connects to the life of Chang as the story unfolds.
“These are two characters with the same soul,” she continued. “They had to be played by the same actor. I actually think it was an experiment that should be praised for its audacity alone.”