My book examines how and why East Asia is so often associated with technology and futurity in contemporary Hollywood film. Examples I discuss include the dystopic cities of Blade Runner, Black Rain, and The Matrix; the self-orientalizing performances of Asian-American actors, Gedde Watanabe and Pat Morita; and the martial arts action sequences in the Rush Hour series, Ghost Dog, Kill Bill, and Batman Begins.
I argue that such allusions to the “Far East” crystallize multiple cultures, histories, and aesthetics into a few easily recognizable tropes. I call the process and product of this reduction “oriental style” – a term that extends Edward Said’s model of Orientalism by shifting the temporal and geographical contexts of his now classic study to look at US media depictions of East Asia. This concept also illuminates aspects of Orientalism that have been relatively under-theorized, including fascination with Asia by set designers, choreographers, and Hollywood actors; the strategic complicity of East Asian and Asian American performers in the construction of authentic “Asianness;” and the multilateral networks of exchange through which American, Japanese, and Chinese popular media come to coincide.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Yellow Future is my attempt to show how oriental style structures the stories of films that, at first glance, seem to have nothing to do with Asia or racial difference. Moving between production studies and narrative analysis, I trace how various technologies and futuristic dystopias become conflated with Asian cities, faces, foods, and fighting styles through editing techniques, mise-en-scène, and allusions to other movies. In the process, I link the quiet cultural semantics of films like Blade Runner and The Matrix to their more visible moral dramas, showing that the play of oriental style can be indispensable to what counts as gritty, futuristic, or just exciting.
As a result, my book is one of the few studies of cinema in ethnic studies that foregrounds aesthetic and institutional elements – including genre, narrative, production design, and performance – while teasing out the more unexpected ways in which these elements, often through their very ambiguities, reproduce dominant ideas about East Asia in the popular imagination.
While some inroads have been made, most Hollywood films continue to privilege the emotional development of white, middle-class characters. For this reason, I think it’s important to interrogate how that norm is sustained through collective fantasies about East Asia, especially since such films – from The Karate Kid to Kung Fu Panda – still set the terms through which Asian identities are made intelligible to Hollywood audiences.
I started writing this book in a period when the political position of Asian Americans seemed to be oscillating between appearing either as threats to middle America or tokens of multicultural solidarity, often lending legitimacy to myths about social meritocracy and jarring somewhat with my own experiences. It struck me that the conditional visibility of Asian American scholarship, lobby groups, and activism, as well as celebrities, popular food chains, fashion, and so on, paralleled the awkward presence of Asian themes and imagery in Hollywood movies – that is, how symbols of Asia generally occupy the background, appearing occasionally as breathtaking spectacles or helpful secondary players, only to wander back to the wings, so to speak.
Flicking from current affairs programs to re-runs, I wondered whether the now familiar promise of exchange with different cultural perspectives might contain its own foreclosures and refusals, and lead to an active willing away of substantive Asian and Asian diasporic experiences through a kind of overzealous aestheticism.
At the same time, I couldn’t simply dismiss the new, “cool” images of East Asia and Asian America that were emerging in the late 1990s, from Giant Robot to The Iron Chef to the ubiquitous figures of Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu because of my own ambivalent relationship to them. On the one hand, they were products I sometimes enjoyed consuming; on the other, they seemed to limit how I could position myself as well as how others would position me vis-à-vis pop culture and the banal landscape of the everyday.
Since then, East Asian bodies, cultures, and styles have become ever more visible in US entertainment media, evidenced by the growing number of Asian faces in such television shows as Lost, Heroes, and Gray’s Anatomy; the popularity of the Korean Wave or Hallyu; and the disturbing proliferation of supposedly ironic yellowface in music videos, video games, and the Internet. My book offers an interdisciplinary approach for making sense of these racialized images as complex cultural productions – one that tries to go beyond condemning such images for disseminating “negative stereotypes” or celebrating them simply for existing.
To be honest, though most of these anxieties come as a kind of aftershock. The book really stemmed from my love for most of these films, with the stories that can be read in and out of the central narratives. I’ve tried hard in Yellow Future to maintain a balance between the pleasures these stories have to offer and their often hilarious, and always instructive, moments of failure.
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.
These perspectives have been and continue to be discussed among scholars working on Afrofuturism and techno-orientalism – material that I wish I had been able to engage with more deeply in the book. There is also some excellent work being done at the moment on transnational connections between the US and East Asia, especially in terms of Afro-Orientalism and Pacific Rim diasporas, so if nothing else, it would be great if Yellow Future could play a role in connecting research in these areas of ethnic cultural studies with film scholarship, which itself is overhauling older paradigms through renewed emphasis on production cultures, local media ecologies, and so on.
My ideal would also be for “oriental style” to travel a little further than I’ve had space in Yellow Future. There are all kinds of things happening right now in advertising, cultural tourism, and corporate branding that dovetail with what this book is trying to get at – the way that “Asia” comes to frame all kinds of popular reflections on the present, on modernity, on the future – for better or worse.
So while I’ve been writing within my home disciplines of Asian American studies and film studies, I would be happy if some of my ideas strike a chord in some less familiar places, including outside the academy. I have to admit that I feel the most gratified when one of my serious film buff friends tells me they got really excited about something I put in my book. And meanwhile, I try not to be too mortified when they remind me of all the things that I managed to leave out.
Jane Chi Hyun Park is a lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on race, gender, and popular media in the United States and the Asia Pacific. She has published essays on a variety of topics, including mixed-race Hollywood actors, Japanese-American hip-hop, and Korean romantic comedies. Dr. Park is currently working on two projects, one on rethinking diaspora in the Asia Pacific through popular culture, and another on transnational flows of contemporary South Korean food, beauty and media.