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He, Robot

After Yang gets lost in a metaphor
Art for He, Robot.
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At the end of Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” there is a grim, knowing joke. Yang, a robotic caregiver purchased by a white middle-class family to help raise their Chinese adoptee daughter, Mika, has recently malfunctioned. Mika’s father is able to salvage Yang’s voice box, still regurgitating “Fun Facts” about China to teach Mika about her heritage, but his body must be buried. As the family holds a funeral to mourn his passing, the voice box chimes in with one such morbidly apt fact: “Did you know over two million workers died during the building of the Great Wall of China?”

Beyond hinting at Yang’s awareness of his own death, this “odd coincidence”—which causes Mika’s parents to share a disconcerted glance—does two things. The first is to stake Yang’s claim as a worker: admittedly a capacious and contested term, but notably distinct from “robot.” The second is to offer a wry counterpoint to the affective journey taken by the story’s narrator, Mika’s father, whose initial indifference toward Yang softens into a mournful affection for someone he increasingly views as a surrogate son. Yang’s final comment serves as a reminder of the unequal power relation belying such sentimentality: he is functionally an unpaid laborer, worked to death in service of his employers.

After Yang, Kogonada’s recent film adaptation of Weinstein’s story, removes the funeral scene entirely. It is one of a number of ameliorative changes that characterize the film’s more serene, hushed tone. Mentions of a war in East Asia and the wave of racism it sparks in the United States, motifs that loom large in Weinstein’s narrative, are confined to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it set design minutiae. The family’s questionably charitable motives for adopting a Chinese orphan go undiscussed, and any lingering suggestion of white saviorism is quelled in the casting of Black British actress Jodie Turner-Smith as Mika’s mother, Kyra.

The more interesting question is not who or what is human, but who gets to count as human within a given social order.

The result is a narrative structured by social stratification, yet largely absent of its markers. Besides a marginal subplot regarding anti-clone prejudice, the film’s aesthetic signifiers—a bucolic, multicultural eco-futurism of rustic ramen shops, mid-century modern lighting, and foliage-lined cars—draw attention away from the simple, material truth that the family at its center sustains itself on the exploitation of one of its members.

Where Weinstein gives Yang a voice from beyond the grave, the film kills him off entirely. Instead of a voice box, all that can be salvaged is a memory bank, a device that allowed him to record a short video each day of whatever he deemed important. This version of Yang is all past, no future. Limp, silent, he is a too-perfect corpse. In one subplot, an overeager curator even suggests he would be an ideal museum specimen. Fittingly, then, much of After Yang is an archaeological excavation of Yang’s life. Mika’s father (named Jake in the film and played by Colin Farrell) sifts through the memory bank, discovering that although Yang had been sold to him as a near-new model, he had actually cycled through a number of previous owners. And unbeknownst to Jake, Yang had lived a rich interior life long before arriving at his current family, falling in love with women, with music, with a world outside of his caring responsibilities.

This climactic realization—that a robot can not only think, but feel—is a well-worn trope in art about artificial intelligence. The corresponding trope in criticism of such art is to say it tells us something about “what it means to be human” in a future where the line between technology and humanity is blurred. For me, the more interesting question is not who or what is human, but who gets to count as human within a given social order, with all the protections and privileges that such a label affords—and what happens to those who get left out. “Human” has always been a category founded on exclusion. Whether that exclusion takes aim at race, queerness, disability or, in science fiction, robots, the humans are always in charge, and always have the prerogative to dominate and control the non-human.

For Yang, this means that no amount of “human” emotionality can save him from his economic designation as a commodity, traded from owner to owner, forced to claw back what sense of self he can in secret. When Jake uncovers Yang’s hidden memories, narrative convention demands he experience a grief-stricken catharsis, the kind we might expect of a father mourning a son. But Jake is Yang’s owner. And though the film leaves this unsaid, it is precisely this economic relation that denied Yang his agency in the first place. In this sense, Yang does indeed fit a familiar role of the “human”: that of the exploited laborer.

Robots have been a cultural stand-in for labor since the term’s inception. Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the word for his 1920 play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, deriving it from the Czech word “robota,” meaning forced labor. In R.U.R., the titular company has created an artificial workforce to supplant the need to hire human industrial laborers. This enterprise is explicitly and repeatedly linked to capitalist greed: the factory boss Domin asks, “Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?” When his guest Helena answers, “Probably the one who—who—who—is honest—and dedicated,” he counters, “No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest.”

After Yang is never quite so on the nose, but the work it depicts—essentially live-in childcare—has a very real corollary in the modern domestic labor force, many of whom are poor migrant women working in precarious, exploitative conditions. What Yang does is also emotional labor—not in the diluted, pop feminist sense, but in its original definition from Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: work that “requires one to induce or suppress feeling” as part of the work itself. In other words, Yang’s job is not just to look after Mika, but to present the face of a happy, willing worker, regardless of his own internal emotional state.

This tension reveals itself in the small flickers of Justin H. Min’s subdued performance as Yang: an ambiguous pause before joining a family photo, a moment where he reveals a little too much of his own anxieties before saying he “lost my train of thought.” Hochschild writes that, where physical labor alienates a worker from their own body, emotional labor alienates a worker from their ability to feel for themselves. Yang’s memory bank is a living document of this process: the public, smiling face he presents to those he works for; the troubled, pensive face keeps for himself; and the anxiety that the former might overpower the latter.

Chief among Yang’s troubles is his status as a “cultural techno,” a robot specifically programmed to provide a heritage education for transracial adoptees like Mika. Yang is loaded with a litany of factual data about China, but he has no memory of its sights, smells, tastes. “I wish Chinese tea wasn’t just about fun facts for me,” he tells Jake plaintively. He is a living embodiment of John Searles’s Chinese room thought experiment, where a person who speaks no Chinese can nonetheless “pass” as such if they follow a set of programmed translation instructions.

Kogonada has spoken of this aspect of After Yang as a rejoinder to techno-orientalist depictions of Asians in science fiction, in which Asians appear as unfeeling, machine-like caricatures. For Kogonada, Yang’s alienation from his “heritage” is analogous to that of the diaspora, acculturated to the dominant society yet yearning for an imagined homeland.

“Imagined” is the operative word here. The idea of “Chineseness,” a contested hotbed of competing political and historical claims, is no more a natural category than “human” is. When Kogonada, or I, speak of our respective immigrant alienations, this is as much a reflection of a complex legacy of migration and colonial extraction as it is an emotional separation from an essentialized, immutable conception of “Asia.” These interrelated histories are the reason a phenomenon like techno-orientalism exists in the first place. As David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu argue in a 2015 collection on the subject, techno-orientalism began as an anxious Western response to the economic ascendancy of Asian countries in the late twentieth century: first Japan, then China.

It is puzzling, then, that in a film that posits a transformed global regime in the aftermath of a sixty-year war between the United States and China, where Chinese adoption is common and America is economically transformed by Asian cultural production, immigrant malaise has stayed exactly the same. The image of Asianness presented in After Yang, as Jane Hu argues in The New Yorker, is oddly generic, cobbling together Chinese tea, Japanese pop music, and costume design consciously “influenced by Japan, Korea, and India” into a kind of flattened, pan-Asian mélange. Its visual references come from seemingly everywhere in Asia, which is to say they come from nowhere. No wonder Yang feels unable to connect to his Asianness: in After Yang, Asia exists only as origin myth, a fantasy of identity unmoored from the burdens of history.

Blinkered and imprecise, the film’s treatment of Asian identity is unable to move past metaphor as a frame of reference. Yang disappears into analogy, more thematic abstraction than character. He is a proxy for diasporic longing, for transracial adoption, for contemporary Sinophobia, but never an opportunity to contest our conventional understanding of these categories. In that sense, After Yang’s handling of this theme shares much with its neutered thesis on non-human subjectivity. In both cases, the film is happy to wring these themes dry of their affective potential while leaving thornier, more practical questions of power and resistance unexamined. The world of After Yang seems to be one, for example, in which Asian identity crises exist but imperialism (or at least awareness of it) does not; where robots share human needs and desires, up until the point at which they might seek to unionize.

In After Yang, Asia exists only as origin myth, a fantasy of identity unmoored from the burdens of history.

The film’s vague portrait of dislocation provides a diagnosis, but fails to identify a root cause. Roh, Huang, and Niu’s definition of techno-orientalism, on the other hand, is compelling precisely because it connects the dots between the aesthetics of Asianness in science fiction and the political-economic angst that fueled their rise. No such synthesis exists in After Yang, which shares these preoccupations while obfuscating the material conditions that produce them.

What might the film look like if it reckoned with these conditions rather than eliding them? For one, it might give Yang the chance to get out, to withdraw his consent from an economic arrangement which relies on his subjugation. In Čapek’s R.U.R., the play’s third act ends with the violent overthrow of humanity by a robot-led revolution, but not all gestures of resistance need be so dramatic. Indeed, many recent films about artificial intelligence—from Her to Ex Machina—at least gesture to the possibility of liberation from a life of servility.

After Yang does nod to these possibilities. The revelation that Yang had trysts with a lover in secret, the private moments he records in front of a mirror, the cultivation of an interiority which he actively hid from the family—these all indicate that Yang yearned for selfhood beyond work, beyond subservience. But these moments, like all of Yang’s memories in the film, are always mediated. We see his life through Jake’s eyes, and this is ultimately a story about Jake: his grief, his deliverance, his moral edification. What we are left with, in the end, is another dead robot, and another human washing his hands of culpability.

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