The Anatomy of the Asian Cyborg

December 12, 2022 / Nhi Tieu

Of metal skeletons, beating hearts, and the radiant inner life of a robot

The CYBER-ORIENTAL is a soulless being. Resting underneath her ribcage sits a synthetic heart with a regular pulse. She runs her hands down her arms and doesn’t flinch at how cold her skin feels to the touch.

She is a technological marvel. Her superintelligence returns millions of outputs at the command of her user. Beyond her function as a supercomputer, the Cyber-Oriental is a machine for the processing of desires. She is an object of fetishistic desire with no sexual agency. Humanoid, but never human.

I look in the mirror and the geometry of our bodies are fundamentally the same: low-sloped nose bridges, almond-shaped eyes, and dark hair that falls straight down our backs. Externally, the Cyber-Oriental and I cannot be differentiated. We share the same body. Only, I am not a machine at the whim of my maker.

Western portrayals of Asian cyborgs in sci-fi have served to dehumanize Asians. Lacking the freedom of spirit that defines man, Asian bodies exist as hollow, subservient vessels in the backdrops of science fiction’s most beloved features.

The association between Asianness and futurity has been foundational to cyberpunk since its inception. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) laid the Asian-lite landscape that other works in the genre would quickly adopt and adapt to screen themselves.

Set in Los Angeles, the American metropolis is askew in Scott’s directorial vision. Cars fly over scorched metal and industrial wreckage. The threat of lethal humanoids hides in plain sight. Blimps advertise opportunities for interplanetary colonization so that L.A.’s populace may finally escape the aura of misery that blankets the city.

The camera cuts to holographic geisha projected onto the sides of skyscrapers, zooms in on kanji characters that flicker neon outside noodle shops, and pans over a cityscape that is undeniably L.A. yet suspiciously reminiscent of Tokyo. In Blade Runner, the evil megacorporations that dominate the world are Asian, and this is Western dystopia.

Anxiety toward Asian technological dominance has permeated Western media since Japan’s economic boom in the 80s. Xenophobic fears of the uncivilized “mystic East” had shifted to fears of a futuristic and advanced Asia. Still, racist perceptions of Asian people are fundamentally the same — the Eastern “Other” is distant, inscrutable, and ultimately unable to relate to the Westerner.

Asian cyborgs in science fiction have been used as artistic shorthand for the foreign, unfeeling Oriental. Cyber-beings like Ex Machina (2014)’s Kyoko are expressionless for entire runtimes, unsettling the audience with their inhuman imitation of humanness. Stomachs turned as Kyoko peeled off the synthetic skin that characterized her as “person-like” — exposing her robotic interior — and peered directly into the camera with wide, lifeless eyes.

This desecration of Kyoko’s face occurs multiple times throughout the film. Whether self-inflicted or struck in the jaw by her own creator, the Asian cyborg is subjected to a level of violence that her White robot counterpart does not. Ava is allowed the illusion of humanness with perfect preservation of her facial features. Kyoko is not given this sanctity, her character a representation of the continued cycle of violence against Asian people.

Kyoko is neither complex, nor a character with agency. She was programmed to cater to the film’s Genius Billionaire CEO — both domestically and sexually. She is a feast for the male gaze, her slim body gracing the screen to please its viewers on both sides. As the amalgamation of straight male fantasy, she is sexy, servile and importantly, silent. Her A.I. programming disallows her to learn English, rendering her unable to speak.

Adorned with the physical makeup of a person, Kyoko is devoid of personhood. With an impressive blend of orientalist attitudes and hypersexualized anti-Asian misogyny, the only prominent Asian character in Ex Machina is the ultimate all-in-one machine, servant, and fetish. (How manufacturally efficient!)

Asian bodies have been reduced to robots and holograms, vessels that don our likeness yet lack rich internal lives. Our bodies are vehicles for sci-fi villains to flaunt their genius and pending White saviors to liberate (refer to: Cloud Atlas [2012]). We exist as machines that bear an uncanny resemblance to something human, but not quite.

Enter After Yang (2021), an indie sci-fi film absent of adrenaline-pumping action sequences, aerial shots of a technology-ridden dystopian society, and most other visual signifiers of the genre. After Yang is warm yet melancholy, a quiet film that slowly and subtly transports you into its world. As the credits roll and Mitski’s solemn cover of “Glide” begins to play, the audience is left with grief weighing down on their chest without even fully realizing.

Kogonada’s sophomore feature trades in the metallic sheen of sci-fi past for shades of green instead. Not the greens of The Matrix, but the lively green of a gentle forest. In contrast to the vaguely Tokyo-esque Los Angeles in Blade Runner, this film adopts more traditional Japanese aesthetics with the airy interiors of Jake’s teahouse, the family’s zen garden, as well as a wardrobe consisting of kimono-like apparel and obi belts.

After Yang’s vision of an “Asian future” is a modern world that borrows from ancient traditions. The movie highlights the historic art of tea-making while its technological advances — holographic video calls, VR glasses, robots known as “technosapiens” — are more hidden, gently folded into the story. After Yang deliberately subverts sci-fi’s hyper-technological association with Asian culture and iconography in this way.

The titular Yang is the Asian cyborg (or in-universe technosapien) and main subject of the film. On the surface, Yang adheres to the archetype perfectly: a robot, pre-programmed to execute tasks, living to serve. Jake and Kyra initially purchased the technosapien to care for their adoptive daughter, Mika, and help connect to her Chinese heritage.

In the eyes of the couple, Yang is a machine — a machine they’re quite fond of, certainly, but a machine that represents convenience nonetheless. To Jake and Kyra, Yang is a technological accessory approaching the end of his lifespan as he malfunctions at the beginning of the film. To Mika, her beloved gege is dying.

Jake lugs a powered-down Yang to a series of repair shops as if he’s a used car, merely a long-term investment he figures he can still salvage. There, Yang is determined to be permanently broken — irreparable as an outdated model.

Yang plays his role as brother and caretaker with incredible tenderness. His voice is soft-spoken rather than robotic and monotonous. He is attentive and thoughtful and more engaged with the world than anyone else in the film. The very first line of the movie points out Yang’s sentimentality for his old camera. The robot’s affinity for capturing things on film illustrates how sensitized he is to the beauty that surrounds him.

The ASIAN CYBORG is the CYBER-ORIENTAL reborn. Destroying the mechanisms of her predecessor, she is reassembling the scraps of sheet metal and frayed wires to reinvent conceptions of how Asian bodies conjoin with technology. Her destruction begets creation.

And while the past is embedded in every inch of the Asian Cyborg’s anatomy (scars from a millennium of othering and shoulders that bear the weight of this history), the cyborg’s reconstruction gloats new upgrades: a heart so tender it bruises and an immaterial soul. Both essential features of human existence, the Asian Cyborg can now declare herself living.

At the intersection of Man, Spirit, and Machine stands the Asian Cyborg. ■

By: Nhi Tieu

Photographer: Jeffrey Jin

Stylist: Alex Cao, Joanne Kim

HMUAs: Meryl Jiang, Miu Nakata

Models: JJ Le, Tyler Kubecka

Layout Designer: Sophie Zhang

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

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