Jane Chi Hyun Park


On her book Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema

Cover Interview of November 29, 2011

A close-up

My favorite pages in the book are pages 58 to 64, the subheading titled “Imaging the Future” in which I describe how Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner and his production crew imagined and created the futuristic world of the film. Along with watching this film more times than I’d care to admit, I also read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the proto-cyberpunk novel by Philip K. Dick from which it was adapted. I remember scouring the book for the non-western references that constitute the apocalyptic Los Angeles of 2019 in the movie: Tyrell’s mega-corporation, which resembles an ancient Mayan temple; the night markets teeming with Asian and Middle Eastern hawkers selling food and exotic animals; the neon Chinese and Japanese script; the constantly flashing billboard of a geisha (played, incidentally, by a Korean-American actress); and the secondary East Asian characters, small-time entrepreneurs, that help lead the refugee replicants to their negligent and uncaring corporate father.

Imagine my surprise at not finding any of these references in the novel, which is set almost entirely indoors and whose only nod to ethnicity is “Rosen,” the presumably Jewish name of the corporation that manufactures the replicants.

This made me even more interested to track down how the “Orient” came to play such a prominent role in the mise-en-scène of the film. What I uncovered in nerdy paraphernalia around Blade Runner, including interviews published in cinematography journals, was the story of a group of highly creative, cosmopolitan Anglo-British and American men who were able to conjure a future gone wrong drawing on their fantasies of the East.

Predictably, Asia functions in Blade Runner as the alluring and foreign “other” of the West, the normal, and the present: it is the extra kick that makes the near future look like “New York on a bad day” to quote the director – dirty, overcrowded, full of freaks, the poor, and people of color. Yet not so predictably, this “other” also is linked with the morally ambiguous hero (and yes, Deckard is a replicant).

What I wanted to show in the rest of the chapter through my analysis of oriental style in the film’s architecture, cityscape, and characters is how what some of us might be quick to identify as racist isn’t always intentional – that in fact, such unintentional, casual racism continues the imperialist legacy of seeing non-white people as “not quite human.” At the same time, the fascination with Asia evidenced in the creation of the set, complicates a straightforward critique of Orientalism or racism, and begs the question of how we might envision the future differently through non-white and non-western perspectives.