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After Yang intentionally subverts sci-fi’s fetishistic ‘hollow Asian’ trope

Director Kogonada explains how the film gets under the skin of some long-running cultural prejudice

A close-up of Justin H. Min as the android Yang in the trailer for After Yang Image: A24

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Kogonada’s melancholy sci-fi feature After Yang is many things: a testament on loss, an examination of our reliance on technology, and a deeply human story about care. One thing it isn’t, however, is conventional. Most sci-fi films paint their futurescapes in metallic sheens, but After Yang wraps viewers in soft domestic scenes and gentle forests. Sci-fi narratives are so often expansive, addressing discovery, adventure, or conquest, but After Yang turns inward, with a story about family, grief, and memory. Kogonada deliberately subverts the tropes and mechanics we’ve come to expect, using them as jumping-off points to respond to the sci-fi genre’s dark legacy of Orientalism and the dehumanization of Asian people.

The story itself is deceptively simple. Yang (Justin H. Min) is a “technosapien,” an androidlike bot purchased by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to care for their adoptive daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and teach her about her Chinese heritage. Early in the film, Yang malfunctions, forcing Jake to shuttle him around, looking for someone who can fix him. While getting a diagnostic, Jake learns that Yang has a memory bank that’s stored a few seconds of footage a day. The rest of the film follows Jake’s journey through Yang’s memories, uncovering a past and life he realizes he knew nothing about, as he seeks to make sense of the loss and deal with the family tensions that Yang’s “death” has revealed.

By making Yang a robot whose function is so explicitly bound to Chinese culture — and outfitting the film with East Asian-inflected details, ranging from the kimonolike clothing everyone wears to Jake’s career running a tea shop — Kogonada explicitly situates his story among the vast number of sci-fi films that have drawn from Asian imagery and culture. The genre has had a deep, long obsession with Asia. Asian culture, language, and iconography stretch through cinematic futures, from the Fu Manchu-style villain in Flash Gordon to the Hong Kong-esque look of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles to the kung-fu movie influences in The Matrix to the cityscape in Her, created from references to the Pudong business district of Shanghai.

At the same time, science fiction has largely ignored and typecast the Asian people it has so actively borrowed from, depicting us without agency or nuance, and reinforcing worn stereotypes in the process. After Yang director Kogonada tells Polygon, “There’s such a history of Orientalism in Western media’s engagement of the East — it’s something that’s often fetishized, and there’s so much literature deconstructing that. […] As an Asian filmmaker, I wanted to tackle that in a different way, because my own struggle with my Asian identity often is in the world of its construction: Do I perceive myself as Asian, not Asian enough, too Asian? And there’s no solid ground for that identity, especially if you’ve been dislocated, so we have to contend with the way that Asia and Asians have been presented. There’s no avoiding Orientalism for an Asian.”

A gif clip from After Yang, with “technosapien” Yang joining his family for an outdoor portrait Image: A24

A term that describes this sort of appropriation has recently become popular: “techno-orientalism,” which at heart refers to the ways in which popular media has blended visions and anxieties of the future with reductive Asian stereotypes. At the height of this phenomenon lies what Kogonada calls “the Asian robot,” a character that strongly heightens the traditional racist tropes of Asians as hardworking but lacking rich internal lives — as machinelike math whizzes capable of executing tasks, but unable to think for themselves. The trope, an extension of the equally reductive “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype, makes Asian people hollow, empty, and passive — even when they’re flesh-and-blood characters, they’re still figurative bots, just as much as Yang is a literal one.

Occasionally, these “hollow Asians” are “freed” by an enlightened (read: white) agent, as in Cloud Atlas, where an artificial person called a “fabricant” (played by Bae Doona) is shown the harsh realities of their world by Jim Sturgess in yellowface. At other times, they’re used as plot devices or instruments to serve the main characters in the film, like the mute servant-bot Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. But more often, they’re part of the film’s backdrop, too busy selling things or laboring away to make their way into the main narrative. Sometimes, they aren’t even played by Asian people at all. (Looking at you, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.) In all these films, we get characters who reinforce the view that Asian people are essentially empty vessels meant to be liberated, used as plot devices or props, or worn by other characters, but always devoid of their own internal lives.

“I’ll be honest: The conversations I have with Asian people are often existential and philosophically complex,” Kogonada says. “It’s a community that’s really consumed with these deeper questions. But I’ve almost never seen that in cinema, which has really simplified the Asian dialogue.”

Which is why Kogonada’s treatment of Yang is so subversive. He starts with a figure who seems to fit snugly into this archetype: a bot, pre-programmed to execute tasks, living to serve. Jake and Kyra are fond of Yang, but they begin the film with exactly this basic understanding of him — that he’s just a machine that has served as a crutch, letting them neglect their parenting duties. Though Justin H. Min plays Yang with incredible tenderness, only Mika seems to truly see Yang as an individual. It feels significant that Mika and a museum curator played by Sarita Choudhury are the film’s only major Asian characters, and also the only ones who initially see Yang as something other than a convenient device. It’s as though the recognition of his deeper, human identity could only occur to someone capable of seeing past his Asian-robotic appearance — and as if the only people with that capacity are other Asians.

Yet as the film progresses and Jake delves into Yang’s memories, he finds a life well lived, iridescent and beautiful. Kogonada says he wanted to evoke those personal conversations he’s had with other Asian people, the ones so rarely seen on screen. “As much as Yang is a mystery to me — and I wanted to keep it like that — he also reflected a sort of Asianness that was really familiar to me,” he says. “As much as he was a robot, he was the most engaged with the world, the most sensitized to what was beautiful around him.”

And in a reversal of the white-savior trope, Kogonada even has these memories serve as a healing and liberating tool for Jake. “I knew that the film could be set up as a white-savior narrative because of the race of the family,” he says. “But for me, I knew that the father was the one who was lost and disconnected, and it was going to be Yang who was fixing and saving the father.”

By letting the audience see Yang’s memories, Kogonada takes us into Yang’s body alongside Jake, and shows the world through his eyes. In doing so, Kogonada runs the risk of playing into the trope of the Asian body as something you can “put on.” It’s something that happens explicitly in films that use yellowface and reduce Asianness to a costume (like Cloud Atlas), and in a more roundabout fashion, whenever Asian robots are denied the sort of inner essence that would preclude a white actor from playing them (like in Ghost in the Shell). It’s also a practice we see all the time online, when people take on Asian symbols to signal a sort of Asianness. (Think of all the usernames that start with “samurai” or “geisha,” or Oli London, the British influencer who rebranded himself as Korean after getting plastic surgery.) All these instances use the idea of the “hollow Asian” as a pretext to justify white people using a racial identity as a costume — after all, there was “nobody home,” so to speak, so the body is up for the taking.

Haley Lu Richardson listens to Justin H. Min’s chest in After Yang Photo: Linda Kallerus/A24

But instead of furthering this trope, Kogonada uses the idea of a white man stepping into an Asian body to place the audience face to face with Yang’s delicate sensitivity, his unspoken histories, and ultimately, his impenetrable complexity. He fits the “Asian robot” trope until he doesn’t, until he reveals he was never the empty vessel other people assumed he was.

The beauty of the montage sequences that show Yang’s memories heightens this realization, and gestures toward a complex soul that lies just out of frame. Kogonada crafted the visuals of Yang’s memory interface specifically to strengthen that association. “I didn’t want it to be something cold and knowable like a desktop,” he says. “I felt like the form itself should feel like a mystery […] that the space itself should have an emotion to it, beyond the content.”

Through Yang’s memories, Kogonada returns us to one of sci-fi’s eternal questions: What does it mean to be human? Different forms of human identity are a constant specter throughout the film, especially when it becomes clear that Yang himself was musing over his Chinese identity. Since Yang was designed to strengthen Mika’s relationship with her Chinese heritage, he was outfitted with an Asian body and a head full of “Chinese fun facts,” but he’s unsure whether those things actually make him Chinese. (It’s a sentiment likely to resonate with other Asian Americans watching the film.) While Jake is initially surprised that Yang was more concerned with ethnic identity than with a “deeper” existential human identity, the film makes it clear that these questions are deeply attached, a double provocation behind the question of “What am I?”

As Kogonada puts it, “There’s this question of what it means to be human that we’re used to in sci-fi, but as important in my film is what it means to be Asian, which we find out is what Yang cared about, more so than this Pinocchio question. And it puts this thing that’s normally in the background to the foreground.”

By simultaneously raising and relating questions of heritage and humanity, Kogonada sheds light on a fact that science fiction has often ignored: These questions of humanity haven’t historically been applied to everyone equally, and by choosing to ignore these other dimensions of identity, sci-fi has often proceeded at the expense of those of us who don’t fit the predominantly white, male profile of the genre’s long-standing primary protagonists. After Yang also pushes back against the false notion that questions of human identity and race are somehow mutually exclusive, as if serious artists should choose one or the other to explore.

“That’s exactly the way I wanted to approach [human identity and cultural identity] — in dialogue with each other,” Kogonada says. “I really believe in conversation, and we’re in a crisis of discourse nowadays. Real conversation requires space and openness, and I think that our mediated world has amplified a kind of shouting and simplification, which fights against genuine dialogue, where you can have more than one kind of conversation going.”

In complicating and challenging the trope of the Asian cyborg, After Yang paves a new way forward, showing us another way in which sci-fi’s fascination with Asian culture and people can come to life, and creating a space where Kogonada’s “existential and philosophically complex” questions can find room to breathe. He gives us a radical departure from a genre that has taken the easy way out when it comes to its Asian characters, and he does so by acknowledging and working off science fiction’s problematic legacy. The film recognizes the ways in which the Asian-cyborg trope has dehumanized real Asian people, and uses it as a starting point to re-center their humanity in the genre. It’s simultaneously an interrogation of what it means to be human, a rebuttal to fetishists, and a critique of a genre that has often left us on the margins. “Those are my favorite kinds of conversations,” Kogonada says, “where things aren’t contained in one space or subject.”

After Yang is currently in theaters and streaming on Showtime.

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