JUNE 18, 2022
DIGITAL RAIN GLOWING radioactive green.
A human affixed to mechanical tubes in an incubation pod, rendered cephalopodic.
A gravity-defying dominatrix, ninja-like. A shoot-out: Flying glass and splintered shards.
These are some of the images that come to mind when The Matrix, that postmodern cultural touchstone of the late ’90s by the Wachowskis, is mentioned. Yet each of these images that have become visual synecdoches for the film and franchise is derived from earlier ’80s and ’90s cultural artefacts from Asia. The original Matrix trilogy bears the fingerprints of major Asian cultural producers: the ubiquitous green “digital rain” and headjacks were first seen in Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Ghost in the Shell, the eye-watering action sequences bear the fingerprints of Hong Kong action film director John Woo’s signature shootouts, and even the notorious “blue pill” is a reference to Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 Akira.
The Wachowskis have openly spoken about their fascination with cyberpunk, their love for John Woo action films, and the inspiration they drew from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Japanese anime such as Ghost in the Shell. Indeed, there are even shot-for-shot images in The Matrix that mirror moments in Ghost in the Shell. And in The Matrix Resurrections, the new denomination of robots who are sympathetic to humans resemble the Ohmu from Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Preparing for a course I used to teach at Mount Holyoke College titled “Cyberpunk in Asia” led me down a research rabbit hole, uncovering the film’s many Asian inspirations. While The Matrix and references to it have entered our rhetoric and cultural consciousness at a mainstream level, knowledge of the film’s myriad allusions remains the domain of a very niche crowd. Despite drawing on Asia for material for so many aspects of the franchise, Asian people and Asian culture do not signify in meaningful ways and are often literally only superficially referenced. Furthermore, in the latest reboot, Asian lives are cheap and dispensable — used and dispatched through gratuitous violence.
The way race is taken up in the original film largely relies on the binary logic of Black and white that drives much of American racial discourse. The characters in the film who are able to enter the Matrix and therefore able to perform fanciful physical feats are, crucially, mostly white. Strikingly, the indigenized characters who are unable to enter the Matrix are often Black, which serves as commentary on race and access to technology. They cannot enter the Matrix as they are born through natural means and therefore do not have the headjacks that those nurtured by the machines for energy harvesting do. Two such characters are the brothers Tank and Dozer, their names aligning them uncomfortably with heavy/military machinery made for violence and brute force even as they are meant to be the most “natural” or native characters, having been born in Zion. Race, in being aligned with how organic or technologically modified bodies are, is used to in turn signify and suggest something contradictory and problematic about how human these characters are on a spectrum, exposing the fallacy of a technologized post-racial future. In the logic of the film, Black people are paradoxically both essentialized and more human, yet also interpellated as machines and less human. But it is not necessarily always desirable to be more human in this world when to be less human does not merely mean to be dehumanized, reduced to manual labor, and treated as subhuman, but to be apotheosized into something superhuman in the Matrix.
In this binary of Black and white, Asian people are nowhere to be found despite the original film’s debt to Asian cultural artefacts and genres. Asianness in the film is not embodied but ejected onto the architecture, flattened into cladding, essentialized into a bodiless form (martial arts), reduced to literal programming, or apotheosized into “postracial science.” As Ruha Benjamin notes in Race After Technology, many tech enthusiasts “wax poetic about a posthuman world” without considering that “posthumanist visions assume that we have all had a chance to be human.” Asian people — and therefore Asian cultural labor — are thus disappeared in The Matrix through the double action of, on the one hand, reducing Asianness to surface and, on the other, essentializing Asianness into something programmatic and coded. In a famous scene from the original, Neo wakes up after programs such as jiujitsu, Kenpō, Tae Kwan Do, and drunken boxing are uploaded to his brain, his eyes flashing open as he proclaims, “I know kung fu.” Complex martial arts forms from different countries and cultures are reduced to their Hollywood derivative.
And this is hardly a metaphor — literalized as it is in the very production history of the franchise. Jet Li, one of the best-known and successful martial arts stars, was approached by the Wachowskis to play the part of Seraph for the second and third films. He turned down the offer when he realized that they wanted him to record his martial arts moves for them to be preserved in a digital library and that “the right to these moves would go to them.” Li did not want to sell and lose his intellectual rights to the martial arts moves he had spent a lifetime learning and turned down the role. “I was thinking: I’ve been training my entire life. And we martial artists could only grow older,” he said. “Yet they could own [my moves] as an intellectual property forever. So I said I couldn’t do that.” What better metaphor for appropriation, for dehumanization, could there be? Indeed, even when given a body, Asianness is still stereotyped as the Kung Fu Master, for that is in effect what — and all — Seraph is.
In the reboot, Resurrections continues to draw its aesthetic inspirations from Asia and Asian films. Neo and Morpheus duel in a pavilion on the water, an image that is evocative of a scene in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and resembles the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. The price for Neo to regain consciousness is the obliteration of precisely this heavily aestheticized “Oriental pavilion” in a blast that resembles an atomic bomb — an image that not only evokes, in film history, the nuclear blast in Akira (1988), but also the actual nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, and therefore serves as the perfect visual metaphor for American militarism and exceptionalism. The beauty of the pavilion (made beautiful by its Orientalized stylization) is merely due to the coding of the program and ultimately means nothing as it is meant to be destroyed in service of Neo’s triumphant return.
How do we think about the politics of racial representation in The Matrix and The Matrix Resurrections alongside race relations today, at a moment when we struggle to confront or make sense of the simultaneous erasure and hypervisibility of Asian people — when Asian people are both ignored and violently targeted and Asia is seen as a threat?
It is unsurprising in Hollywood that a film franchise that owes such a debt to Asian imagination should not view those that birthed this creativity as worthy of respect and protection — as if Asian people were not people, technologized into ideas that could be indisputably lifted, replicated, and downloaded for mass use. This problematic way of viewing Asia and Asian people might be illuminated by the term techno-Orientalism, defined by David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu in their book Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” It follows that techno-Orientalist imaginations are “infused with the languages and codes of the technological and the futuristic.” Indeed, part of “the West’s project of securing dominance as architects of the future” requires “configurations of the East as the very technology with which to shape it” (my italics). Western nations competing with Asian countries for cultural and economic dominance “find in techno-Orientalism an expressive vehicle for their aspirations and fears.” In The Matrix, Asianness has been harnessed and coded and either ineffectually signifies as an aesthetic or can be weaponized and deployed for destruction.
It is one thing to not have a body, but quite another to be given a body only in order to be killed.
In his travelogue, Rudyard Kipling, marking out the Chinese as a different form of life that should warrant caution, writes that there are “three races who can work […] but there is only one that can swarm.” Such paranoid fears around Asian reproduction led to the racist and misogynistic Page Act of 1875, and such forms of thinking about the Chinese body and Chinese labor — a body that could work more and subsist on less — led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the United States. Racist views about Asian people as unthinking, mechanical, and proliferative — swarm-like — have a long history, influencing immigration policy, and lingering pesteringly in popular representation. In The Matrix Resurrections, we are informed of a new strain of danger that takes the form of “The Swarm.” The agents in the original trilogy who were endowed with exceptional power and skill and who acted as individuals have now dissipated into a more insidious, yet ubiquitous presence known as “bots,” which are “skinned as normal people, which means they’re everywhere and you never know who to trust.” They serve as an incisive metaphor for modern surveillance — the panopticon literally made flesh — where anyone could and therefore does serve as a cog in the surveillance machine. The swarm is clearly named to insinuate a kind of aggressive and menacing unthinking mob — a throbbing, amalgamated mass made up of individual parts that are departicularized and which do not think for themselves.
The film seemingly gives a knowing wink to its audience when the crew informs us that their first stop is going to be Tokyo — the birthplace of cyberpunk as we know it, and therefore, seeing as the film is obsessively and intelligently metatextual, a kind of homage to the genre. But instead, we are given stock images of Japan — bullet trains, cherry blossoms, and Mt. Fuji — a country flattened into stereotypes. Then, a train full of Japanese people represent our first instance of “The Swarm,” who transform, zombie-like, into mindless bots. They are quickly and gruesomely slain. The mise-en-scène evokes South Korean zombie blockbuster hit Train to Busan, though it feels less like a nod to the film than a facile conflation of East Asian countries through an application of racist, visually reductive logic: it’s all East Asia after all. Similarly, in another scene, “exiles,” who are inexplicably mostly Asian or otherwise costumed in ridiculous Orientalized gear appear to seek revenge on Neo. But none of these exiles are really recognizable figures in the franchise, save for the Merovingian — the only speaking exile and the only one who gets away alive. The “twins” and the Trainman, for example, do not make a reappearance in this film. Asianness is not only programmatic, it is to be weaponized against itself — and further, our sensibilities as viewers are narratologically manipulated to find this gratifying. These Asian and Orientalized characters are seemingly only there to lend themselves as punching bags in a fight scene that, for Neo to triumph, can and will only end one way. Indeed, after landing a killing blow to an Asian exile, Neo lands his punch line: “I still know kung fu.”
It bears noting that if Neo’s omniscience lies in his ability to transcend boundaries, moving through matrices, navigating code, and maneuvering spaces, it is also undergirded by Keanu Reeves’s universal appeal (he is fondly known as “the internet’s boyfriend”) — enabled, in no small part, by his ambiguous, panracial identity.  In fact, Marcus Chong, who plays Tank, is half African American and half Asian American, but that aspect of Chong’s identity disappears within the visual logic of the film. Samira Kawash explains in Dislocating the Color Line that “[t]he modern conception of racial identity maintains an uneasy relation to the visual. […] The body is the sign of a difference that exceeds the body. […] As a result, the possibility of a gap opens up between what the body says and what the body means.” Characters like Neo and Tank, played by bi- and multiracial actors, challenge how race works through an epidermal schema since they reveal that we see or don’t see race depending on what we accept the character to be signifying within the diegesis of the film. Both Reeves and Chong are part Asian, but Chong, playing Tank, born naturally in Zion and brother to Dozer (played by Anthony Ray Parker) and Zee (played by Nona Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s daughter) registers one way, while Reeves, the Messiah, another. In both cases, their Asianness mostly doesn’t register — disappearing into the ether, as it were. Interrogating these gaps in knowing turns us to, as Wendy Chun suggests, “understanding race and/as technology [which] enables us to frame the discussion around […] modes of recognition and relation, rather than on being.”
If we turn to modes of recognition and relation, then Bugs, one of the new main characters in the reboot, becomes important to consider as the obvious counterexample to the case I am building. To be sure, Bugs is visibly part Asian, but Bugs as a character is doing so much work to visually signify a whole gamut of minority identities that the sum of the character’s parts amounts to not much more than tokenism. To be clear, Jessica Henwick does an incredible job with the character: clad in androgynous clothes, with adorable cropped hair dyed blue (a likely wink to Blue Is the Warmest Colour), Bugs codes for a queer, nonbinary, nonwhite character in a heterosexual romantic action drama. Yet Jessica Henwick’s posh British accent, preserved in the film, works like a kind of cladding too, erasing the less desirable markings of race and ethnicity such as a nonnative, non-Western English speaker’s accent. This kind of tokenism is not always uplifting and demonstrates the gulf between Asian characters that are allowed to be more fully fleshed out, more fully human, and those that are not. Bugs, played by Henwick, is part Asian: Henwick’s mother is a Singaporean Chinese woman of Teochew descent. This is a detail that pains me in thinking about Bugs as a possible token: I too am a Singaporean Chinese woman of Teochew descent. Yet as on-screen representation goes, Bugs offered me no recognition — no relation.
I used to laugh when people told racist jokes about Asian people. I have spent a long time attempting to unpack the confusing, often conflicting reasons that filled every terrible, shameful bubble of mirth — a desire for assimilation and approval, awkwardness, disbelief, discomfort, complicity, self-hatred, fear. A unique mix of privileges and challenges permitted and prompted my laughter. I am Asian, ethnically Chinese, and grew up part of the majority race in postcolonial Singapore, where I am from. Fresh off the boat in America, digs at Asian people rolled like water off my back — I laughed because the jokes were stupid; they demonstrated the buffoonery of the teller; and I felt untouched by their hostility. But I also laughed because for the first time, I disorientingly found myself in the minority. I was laughing at the teller, but I didn’t get the joke.
In order to get with it, to get in on the joke — in order to really laugh — I had to learn to see myself as the West does, which is to say, to imbibe and accept their demented and corrupted view of who I am. If I understand that my eyes, which have always served me perfectly, were deemed ugly, small, and therefore ill-functioning, then one “got” jokes about Asian slit eyes. Indeed, Resurrections corroborates this form of thinking in which perfection is construed as a closer alignment with a racialized physical aesthetic ideal. Smith, the main antagonist in the earlier films (formerly Hugo Weaving), played by Jonathan Groff in Resurrections, muses on his increased perfection as a program by drawing a line of correlation between the improved quality of coding and his own good looks, an observation that casts Aryan features as the ideal: “And me? Even more perfect. Maybe a little too far on the piercing blue eyes, what do you think?” As Anne Anlin Cheng notes in The Melancholy of Race, “What is a minority without [their] injury?” And indeed, race, even (or especially) in its visible form, is coded as a physical woundedness.
I stopped laughing sometime after I was called a slur and egged on the street. Laughter died in my throat, sliding oily and slick down into my stomach where it eddied, making me sick. Halfway through movies, I would find my heart racing, upset and not knowing why. It took me days to figure out that I was furious after watching Donnie Brasco not because Donnie had betrayed Lefty, but because he and his boys had brutally beaten up a Japanese waiter, using Pearl Harbor as a cheap excuse so that his cover wouldn’t be blown. In Baby Driver, an Asian character acts like a doofus and is murdered in cold blood in a narrative maneuver that barely amounts to a punch line. Quentin Tarantino rudely caricatured beloved Asian martial arts icon Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, misrepresenting him as a cocky moron so he gets beaten up by Brad Pitt for laughs. I grew more and more humorless.
In order to laugh in America, one had to ingest a version of the blue pill in the matrix, one had to not only be content to see oneself as less than, one had to believe it. Yet this, Asian people are told, is representation we should be grateful for. One has to not only be the whipping boy, but also kiss the whip.
This isn’t merely a pattern in the movies. Elliot Rodgers, seething in his misogynistic and racist (self-)hate, butchered three Asian men, two of whom were his roommates, to quell his beta-bloodthirst. A white man, watching a documentary on TV about the abuse of Asian women, picked up a hammer and bludgeoned three Asian men to death. In Atlanta last year, another white man, viewing massage parlors as “locations” which were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” went on a rampage, killing six Asian women. The description of the crime was stunning, suggesting the impossible — that spaces with certain use values were simply vanquished — rather than acknowledge the fact that Asian women and others were murdered. The casual obliteration of Asian lives unmasks the ways in which Asian people are not only not seen as people, we are not even real.
When will killing Asian people stop being a casual joke? The stakes are nothing less than life and death. After all, as the postmodernists that The Matrix draws from would venture, much of life is derived from the movies. As Ruha Benjamin writes, “Reality is something we create together, except that so few people have a genuine say in the world in which they are forced to live.” Even though I found the Resurrections reboot to be fascinating and smart in many ways (“better on gender,” witty metaphors on theatricality and metatextuality), I was inconsolably haunted by the film’s Orientalism — something that I ironically might not have learned to see had I not been obsessively researching The Matrix. That’s the power of the metaphor of the Matrix: we can be taught to be blind to (and even embrace) many things, even when they are actively against our own self-interest. This includes self-erasure in a racist culture. The hegemonic, dominant white cultural production factory that will have me believe in my own invisibility, less-than-humanness, and obliteration is the Matrix I have been living in — the Orientalist real world that produced The Matrix. The Matrix’s final lesson to me, in watching The Matrix Resurrections, is that I can no longer swallow its bitter pill.
 A flexibility that can be applied “tactically” (like his John Wick jackets) — in speaking about her 2019 romantic comedy, Always Be My Maybe, in her 2022 Netflix stand-up special, Ali Wong refers to Keanu Reeves as an Asian American actor.