By Xan Brooks, The Guardian

Adaptation of David Mitchell book reflects film industry's racial pecking order, says Asian-American action group

Cloud Atlas, Warner Bros' $100m adaptation of the novel by David Mitchell has been criticised by Asian-Americans after casting white western actors in "yellowface" makeup. Directed by Tom Twyker and Lana and Andy Wachowski, the film stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent in a narrative that hops between countries and across the centuries.

"It's an artistically ambitious approach to film-making," said Guy Aoki, founding president of the Media Action Network for Asian–Americans (Manaa). "Unfortunately it reflects the same old racial pecking order that the entertainment industry has been practising for years."

Aoki was particularly concerned by a segment set in a futuristic South Korea, in which the actors Jim Sturgess, James D'Arcy and Hugo Weaving are made up to play Asian characters. "Every major male character in the Korean story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface makeup," he said. "The Asian-Americans at the [preview] screening burst out laughing because [Weaving] looked terrible – like a Vulcan on Star Trek."

The Manaa went on to contrast the Korean segment with sequence in the South Pacific, starring the Afro-British actor David Gyasi as a Maori slave. "You have to ask: would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi's role?" Aoki said. "I don't think so: that would have outraged African-Americans. But badly done yellowface is still OK." reports that the Manaa has previously led protests against alleged racial stereotypes in the Sean Connery thriller Rising Sun. They also criticised comedian Sarah Silverman after using the term "chinks" on an episode of Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

Released today in the US, Cloud Atlas is an extravagant fantasy epic that finds space for cannibals, parasitic brain worms and an artichoke that shoots laser beams. The American critic Roger Ebert has hailed it as "one of the most ambitious films ever made", although others are less convinced. Reviewing the film at last month's Toronto film festival, the Guardian's Henry Barnes described it as "a roaming behemoth of a movie" that "carries all the hallmarks of a giant folly".

© Guardian News and Media 2012