After Yang

After Yang


Subverting Techno-Orientalism and Yellow Peril

Human fascination with technology and its potential effects on society has been depicted in blockbuster films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), where the Western lead takes on a technological threat while surrounded by an uncanny, futuristic landscape––from a Western viewer’s perspective––that largely resembles many modern-day East Asian cities. Techno-orientalism, a term coined by Kevin Morley and David Robins in 1995, describes the Western perception of East Asia as a hyper technological near future that reduces Asian bodies to machines. This has manifested in the cyberpunk genre, an extension of the science fiction genre that depicts a dystopian society experiencing a dreaded technological takeover. While Walter J. Ong views the development of technology as a teleological process that occurs for the benefit of society in anticipation of its needs, the cyberpunk genre views the development of technology as detrimental to society, ultimately leading to its inevitable collapse. Western filmmakers have appropriated aspects of East Asian signifiers into the visuals of their films, such as Chinese characters and Japanese kanji, the neon lights of Hong Kong and other well-known East Asian cities, Japanese bullet trains, etc., because they look “futuristic” and “exotic” to Western viewers. If there are any Asian characters in these sci-fi movies, they are often portrayed as robotic or unfeeling characters who exist in opposition to the white lead and need to be saved. The popularization of the cyberpunk genre has strengthened the connection between East Asia and technology while proliferating long-existing stereotypes, particularly the idea that East Asian people are productive and capable but lack emotion and spirit, and further motivating racism against East Asians, due to the fears inherently embedded in the cyberpunk genre. With white leads who are meant to save the day, techno-orientalist depictions in film reduce East Asians to either a backdrop or an enemy, a concept that can be traced back to the 1970s when Japan’s economic growth, closely followed by China’s, began to compete with the United States. To increase the pace of economic growth, Japan focused on the research and production of technologies such as consumer electronics. As Japan began to gain dominance in the global market, the fear of an East Asian economic and technological takeover was instilled into the minds of Americans, eventually seeping into the film industry. The idea that East Asia and its technological advancements represent a threat to America reflects the privileging of Western modernity, highlighting Americans’ fear of “losing their perceived ‘edge’ over others.”1 Techno-orientalism in film has created an interesting relationship between two different perceptions of Asians: one where Asians are too backwards and one where Asians are too dangerously ahead. Historically, in terms of modernization, East Asia was seen as a backwards entity that lagged behind the West where Asians were the eternal outsiders, but due to rapid economic growth, East Asia has increasingly become described as far more technologically advanced than the West. Even so, within these filmic depictions, East Asians remain eternal outsiders and representative of an automated world that threatens humanity, culminating in the expression of the Western fear of a technological future that looks Asian.

In connection with the science fiction genre, another layer of racialized technological fear is added in examining the effects of xenophobic rhetoric utilized by politicians such as Donald Trump. In Phaedrus, Plato discusses rhetoric and truth, voicing his concerns over those who speak without knowing the truth of what they’re saying. 2 Phaedrus represents the modern day consumer who is swayed by the rhetoric of an emotional speaker. We can apply Plato’s ideas to speeches by Donald Trump, where he referred to the Covid-19 virus as “the China virus,” ultimately equating Chinese people with the disease and exemplifying a long history of anti-Asian rhetoric that has fueled “Yellow Peril.” Despite the inaccuracies in Donald Trump’s description of Covid-19, Google searches for “China virus” spiked and reached an all time high in March 2020 following his speech. Because people believe that search results are neutral, many immediately believed Trump and blamed China and Asian people in general for the pandemic, due to the rhetoric used by Trump and the subsequent news articles and media coverage that followed. Several news outlets even spread the theory that Covid-19 was genetically engineered in a Chinese lab as a biological weapon of China. As Safiya Noble puts it, Google and its search results lack “an intersectional power analysis that accounts for the ways in which marginalized people are exponentially harmed by Google.” 3 In this case, Google has harmed Asian people due to its inability to fact check the term “China virus” and failure to put a stop to its results that showcased unfounded articles that continued to use the term. “China virus” would be used to describe Covid-19 for the next two years, followed by an increase in violent hate crimes against Asian people in America, which indicates the damaging effects of this anti-Asian rhetoric. Furthermore, the use of the term has roots in the concept of Yellow Peril––the projection of Western fear and the racialized othering of East Asians on the basis of technologically imbued racist stereotypes that emerged during Japan and China’s rise to global power. In particular, these anxieties around Chinese techno-economic domination is the “imagining of China/the Chinese as the ultimate yellow peril, whose state ideology is oppositional to that of the United States and whose unmatched population size combined with its economic expansion and technological advancements may actually pose a real challenge to U.S.” 4 From the perspective of the United States, China not only represents a threat to American values and ideals, but it also has the resources and man-power to threaten America’s status in the world economy. Quinn Lester writes that “climate-impacted crises like the COVID-19 pandemic increase the stakes… leading to violence against Asians.” 5 COVID-19 and the fear mongering that followed has led to an increase in violence against Asians. In this way, the idea that East Asians pose both a biological and technological threat to America is furthered by the rhetoric surrounding Covid-19. The Asian body becomes seen as a form of inhuman technology and labor, a weapon utilized by global powers like China that remain in ultimate opposition to the US. The term “China virus” and other anti-Asian rhetoric that echo this sentiment are inherently linked to techno-orientalism, which has culminated in the portrayal of East Asian technological advancement as the primary threat to the American lead in science fiction films. 

The film After Yang is another example of a commentary on society’s increasing reliance on technology. Underneath the backdrop of some sort of catastrophic China-US conflict, After Yang follows the story of an android-like bot named Yang that is purchased by characters Jake and Kyra for their adoptive daughter, Mika, to help teach her about her Chinese heritage. Everything seems to be going well until Yang malfunctions, prompting Jake to look for a way to fix him and resulting in the discovery that Yang has a memory bank that stores a few seconds of footage each day. In film, the scientific fiction genre is heavily influenced by techno-orientalist perceptions of East Asian people and aesthetics that consequently equate Asian bodies with hollow, unfeeling robots, instilling fears in the Western viewer of a future that is technologically “Asian.” I argue that the fear of this technological future can be linked to racialized fears of East Asians, largely proliferated by xenophobic rhetoric stemming from the concept of “Yellow Peril” that has led to an increase in violence against Asians in the last few years following Covid-19. These concepts provide us with the framework to examine After Yang’s attempts to turn the techno-orientalist narrative on its head, through its portrayal of an Asian robot named Yang who is revealed to have complex memories and feelings. While the film succeeds in multiple ways, the concept of the film and other aspects of it inherently maintain the techno-orientalist ideas that pervade the science fiction genre and construct racialized ideas about East Asians as a result.

In After Yang, director Kogonada attempts to push back against anti-Asian rhetoric and the techno-orientalist stereotypes that are embedded in science fiction. The film was released in 2021, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, indicating the director’s desire to combat many of the ideas about Asian people that were circulating at the time. Unlike other sci-fi movies, traditional markers of East Asian culture and the exotification of East Asian urban life utilized in movies like The Matrix are nowhere to be seen. After Yang is set in a warmer, more familiar setting with lush, green forests, and homey modern houses. It looks starkly different from other dystopian films that often feature darker, computerized, and unfamiliar augmented worlds that are clearly inspired by cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo. In the world of After Yang, technosapiens have become integrated into the everyday lives of human beings. After Jake and Kyra purchase Yang, Mika forms a strong connection with him. He assures Mika that she is still a part of the family despite being adopted. When Yang malfunctions, it is revealed that his body will soon decompose. Not wanting to upset Mika, Jake becomes determined to fix Yang; he brings him to a repairman who discovers Yang’s memory bank. Jake watches Yang’s memories and realizes that he has lived a whole other life that the family didn’t know about. Although Yang eventually decomposes, Jake and Kyra come to realize that they actually had two adopted children, Mika and Yang. The portrayal of Yang as a human-like robot fits in with the techno-orientalist idea that Asians are robotic. However, by revealing that he actually has complex interiority, Kogonada subverts the robotic trope of Asians lacking spirit and emotion. Even though science fiction movies draw from East Asian iconography and culture, their Asian characters are either used as plot devices for the white leads or are nonexistent, but After Yang’s Asian characters have depth and internal conflict. Mika is attempting to navigate her Asian identity as someone who was adopted and unfamiliar with her culture. Meanwhile, Yang has a consciousness and the ability to form deep connections with humans, on top of his desire to live a human life; he has even fallen in love, which is revealed through some of his memories. Marshall McLuhan discusses the ways in which technology “is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies.” 6 In line with McLuhan’s beliefs, Yang is an extension of humanity. He has been programmed, by some computer software created by a human, to have a database of facts about Chinese culture. Flashbacks reveal that Yang feared he would never truly live the life he wanted and that he had even contemplated the existence of an afterlife. In this way, his wants, needs, and fears reflect the wants, needs, and fears of the human beings he was based on, culminating in his complex feelings and awareness of being a robot. Furthermore, many sci-fi movies center around themes of exploration, the future, and societal fears, but After Yang focuses more on themes of grief and loss that center around the question of Asian identity. The family experiences grief surrounding Yang’s death and dealing with his loss, as they come to understand that he was truly a member of their family. Both Mika and Yang struggle with their Asian identity. The kids at school ask Mika who her “real” parents are since Jake and Kyra don’t look like hera common experience of Asian adoptees who are often conditioned to feel that they are not Asian enough. Yang also questions his Chinese identity, wondering if his appearance and knowledge about Chinese culture actually make him Chinese. The film also reflects fears that society is becoming overly reliant on technology, a common sci-fi theme. However, by portraying a robot as a positive influence on Mika and the rest of the family, After Yang seems to have a more positive outlook on the potential of technology, similar to Ong’s views. After Yang sets itself apart from other sci-fi movies that often fall into the techno-orientalist trap through its setting, portrayal of a robot as an extension of human beings, and themes of grief, loss, and Asian identity.

While After Yang does successfully subvert the techno-orientalist narrative in some ways, it also falls short in other ways. First, the actual premise of the film still sustains the Asian robot trope. Even though Yang has layers and a human consciousness, the only character who seems to see him as more than a robot at first is Mika, the only other Asian character. This decision essentially places Yang and Mika in the position of being outsiders. Moreover, the plot of the movie is still centered around the white lead, Jake, despite its complex Asian characters. Once Yang malfunctions, Jake embarks on a journey where he discovers Yang’s memories and begins to see Yang as a real human. One could argue that this was a purposeful choice made by Kogonada to showcase how white people tend to view Asians, which is likely true, but it proliferates the idea that Asian characters require validation from a white lead in order to be truly perceived as a human being. It also demonstrates another instance of a science fiction movie that features a white lead’s discovery about the technology that exists in the world they live in. Rather than centering Jake, the movie should have focused more on Mika and her journey of self-discovery; it would have better reflected the themes that Kogonada was attempting to explore. There are also only two Chinese characters in the film, Mika and Yang, and for a movie about Chinese identity, the lack of Asian characters seems to be counterproductive and reminiscent of science fiction films that contain little or no Asian characters. The film also takes place in America following a catastrophic conflict between the US and China, which again situates China as the main aggressor against the United States and reflects fears about China’s economic and technological dominance. There is also the fact that the director, Kogonada, is a South Korean-born American who uses a Japanese pseudonym inspired by a Japanese filmmaker. Although the film can be perceived as a commentary on Asian identity in general, it does focus largely on Chinese identity. At the same time, Kogonada includes kimonos and other aspects of Japanese culture throughout the film. The Chinese daughter, Mika, even has a Japanese name rather than a Chinese name. By meshing different East Asian cultures together in the visuals of his film, Kogonoda inadvertently plays into the tendency of non-Asians to view China, Japan, and South Korea as one entity rather than distinct cultures. This tendency is often reflected in other sci-fi films that blur cultural boundaries and appropriate East Asian cultural signifiers. It also begs the question whether a Korean American director can accurately depict the question of Chinese identity. Due to the overall premise of the film, the centering of a white lead, few Asian characters, and the entanglement of East Asian cultures, After Yang does not fully overturn techno-orientalist influences within the science fiction sphere.

The science fiction genre is filled with films that explore our fascination with technology, the future, and the fears that are intertwined within both. In opposition to Ong’s positive outlook on technology, the sci-fi genre often takes a more bleak perspective that offers insight into people’s fears about technology, while also proliferating them. Unfortunately, many of these fears stem from techno-orientalism, the linkage between East Asian culture or people and technology. This ultimately portrays Asian bodies as hollow robots and associates the societal collapse reflected in dystopian films with East Asian technological advancement. As a result, the West has become increasingly concerned with a hyper technological future that looks “Asian,” and which can be traced back to a history of anti-Asian rhetoric and “Yellow Peril” utilized by politicians like Donald Trump. In examining techno-orientalism and anti-Asian rhetoric, we are able to recognize the ways in which After Yang subverts these ideas while simultaneously producing them, constructing racialized ideas about East Asians and falling into the trap of blurring the cultural boundaries between China, Japan, and South Korea.

  1. David Roh, et al., “Technologizing Orientalism: An Introduction,” Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Rutgers University Press, 2015), 3.
  2. Plato, Phaedrus (Penguin UK, 2005), 537.
  3. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression (New York University Press, 2018), 45.
  4. Lok Siu and Claire Chun, “Yellow Peril and Techno-Orientalism in the Time of Covid-19,” Journal of Asian American Studies 23, no. 3 (Oct. 2020).
  5. Quinn Lester, “View of Bio-Orientalism and the Yellow Peril of Yellow Life,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience.
  6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (GINGKO Press Inc., 2013), 43.
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