As neon blue lights descended on the Stern Auditorium, Astria Suparak strode down the aisle and onto the stage to a techno-futuristic song by Detroit-based musician Tammy Lakkis. Suparak wore an elegant tunic and elaborate headpiece comprised of Asian elements, designed by Levon Kafafian and Jay Orellana.

Suparak was hosted on U-M’s campus by the new Digital Studies Institute and DISCO Network programming “Search Engines” for the first in-person exhibition of her piece “Asian futures, without Asians.” The project examines how acclaimed films like Star Wars, The Fifth Element, Firefly, Demolition Man, Dr. Strange, and Ex Machina, use Asian cultures and aesthetics—but not Asian peoples—in order to create sci-fi’s characters and worlds.

Astria’s performance included a wide variety of tropes, going beyond what Americans typically think about when they hear the word “Asian culture.” She focused on eight tropes and sub-tropes commonly used in science fiction films including martial arts, Shoji screens, chopsticks, “giant Geisha ads,” other forms of orientalism, and how they all contribute to Hollywood’s idea of “Asian.”

During her performance, Suparak explained how these films conflate Asian cultures by ignoring differences in nationality and ethnic groups, flattening Asia into a malleable, amorphous idea that can fit any story. But Suparak’s criticism of sci-fi comes from a place of love for the genre. After her performance, in a conversation with Dr. Tung-Hui Hu, Associate Professor of English at U-M, Suparak shared her nostalgia for the sci-fi films she watched growing up, and how her project hopes to inspire a more inclusive future for the genre. Throughout the event, Suparak exposed the way Hollywood’s production of sci-fi films typecasts Asian peoples into fleeting, peripheral, and often invisible roles. She demonstrated how the lack of Asian voices both on and off the screen has led to a homogenization of all Asian cultures into a digestible, white-washed version draped onto white bodies.

Suparak argues a root cause of the misrepresentation of Asia in cinema is the lack of Asian voices in positions of authorship and production in these creative spaces. She poses the question:

What do you define as “Asian” and how are these acclaimed films contributing to these definitions and our expectations of the genre?

Suparak explained that when sci-fi films include Asian bodies, there’s a tendency to use them to decorate and add geographic context to an “exotic” scene or as a part of a clear “lesser” group to distinguish between two social classes—the rich and poor, the skilled and unskilled, the heroes and pedestrians.

In the case of Doctor Strange, Suparak uses these tropes to represent the case of white characters attempting self-discovery at the cost of extracting wisdom from Asian locals. In the film, a desperate Dr. Stephen Strange goes to a fictionalized city, Kamar-Taj, located in Tibet to heal a career-threatening injury. The temple master in Kamar-Taj is notably non-Asian, played by Tilda Swinton, a white British actress, in a bald cap. Her character, a supreme sorcerer who has defended Earth from mystical threats for millennia, enlightens Dr. Strange in the practice of magic and martial arts.

Throughout Suparak’s piece, I was constantly finding how my own favorite sci-fi films fell victim to the tropes Suparak presented. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are from watching Star Wars and The Dark Knight Trilogy with my dad. In Batman Begins, while traveling the world learning combat, Bruce Wayne is recruited to the League of Shadows where he is trained in a homogenized Asian style of fighting, with little to no acknowledgement of the origin of this cultural knowledge.

Fueled by her own love of the genre, Suparak’s project doesn’t argue for the boycott of science fiction films. Rather, she calls for a more thoughtful, organic approach to authorship and representation of Asian culture and people in the genre, particularly after a time of increased hate crimes and hate speech towards Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond countless examples of the misrepresentation of Asian cultures, Suparak ultimately leaves her audience with the confidence to question the sci-fi genre that fans herald as groundbreaking and deserving of critical acclaim. This may complicate fans’ enjoyment, but investigations like Astria Suparak’s “Asian futures, without Asians” create spaces where we are better able to understand and respond to these questions.