The year 2019 marks a curious jubilee for tech-noir visual culture: It’s the year in which the 1982 film Blade Runner is set, and we now find ourselves living in the moment of its future.
Long held as the high-water mark of the cyberpunk genre, Blade Runner has inspired decades of visual imitations in film, anime, and video games at the intersection of sci-fi and neo-noir. Yet Blade Runner remains the uncontested original. Its astounding cyberpunk cityscape emerged fully formed and with few clear precursors. Never explicitly intended to evoke Hong Kong, it did so nonetheless, and fortified Hong Kong’s place in the cyberpunk palette. But how is it that Blade Runner became so visually associated with Hong Kong?
The film’s plot concerns a mawkish bounty hunter tasked with slaying android slaves gone rogue, only to discover that he himself is one. Probably. It’s an identity twist familiar to fans of neo-noir, from Chinatown (1974) to Memento (2000), Infernal Affairs (2002) to Shutter Island (2010). Harrison Ford plays this anti-hero with familiar emotional detachment (see Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark), but generous emotional range is delivered in the performances of his ‘replicant’ victims. This bioengineered underclass is constructed to live for only four years. They remain defiant to the end, in a virtual affirmation of life itself. One dashes slow-motion through sheets of glass in a failed escape from her killer. Another dies screaming in a tantrum of hopeless rebellion. The chief villain, ‘Roy Batty’, claims the most poignant death scene in sci-fi cinema.
But Blade Runner’s most doomed protagonist is the city itself—a metropolis decaying due to unhinged capitalism, a future in decline. In the cyberpunk genre, cities are more than locations. They are cross sections of human breakdown, metaphors of fractured identity, and flailing warnings of the failures of the present.
When director Ridley Scott set about conjuring this dystopia, a haunting visage of contemporary Hong Kong appeared. This visage is replete with dualities: East and West, technology and tradition, affluence and destitution, all connected in space and time. These paradoxes are amplified in Vangelis’s breathtaking soundtrack, itself caught between binaries: major and minor, electronic and analogue, 1940s jazz blues and 1980s synth-wave. It’s a lavish soundscape of plunging techno melancholy. All told, it’s an impressive architecture of contradiction.
But are these impressions of Hong Kong accurate? And also, were they deliberate?
Cyberpunk Hong Kong
Let’s tackle the latter question first: Was the representation of Hong Kong deliberate?
As any cultish Blade Runner fan will tell you, Hong Kong philanthropist Run Run Shaw was a key funder of the film, though he had little sway over its artistic direction. Its chief visual creators, director Scott and designer Syd Mead, cite Hong Kong—alongside New York, Tokyo, and Singapore—as a visual inspiration for the film. However, Hong Kong’s architectural verticality and neon clutter made it the city, above all others, most visually mirrored by the film.
For Takeuchi Atsushi, designer of Ghost in the Shell (1995), Hong Kong’s street-level visual assault makes it the ideal cyberpunk template. The excess of information serves to mystify rather than illuminate. Certainly, coloured, flickering light straining through steam and darkness is Scott’s cinematic calling card. These optical techniques are both economic and aesthetic, as proven in his earlier hit, Alien (1979). That film’s extensive chiaroscuro allowed the audience’s imagination to render far more terrifying worlds than Hollywood effects could ever achieve.
Likewise, Hong Kong’s contemporary neon signs immediately evoke Blade Runner’s impending cyberpunk future. That such a quaintly obsolescent technology as neon should continue to signify the future says much about how implausibly perceptions are constructed. As we will uncover, and like its neon-light signifier, cyberpunk is not about the future, but about the past.
The ‘Asia’ of Hollywood
But first, let’s consider the primary question—does Blade Runner’s Los Angeles actually accurately characterise Hong Kong?
Consider the film’s street scenes, which feature conical-straw-hatted and pyjamas-wearing figures crowding the sidewalks, peddling noodles and pedaling bicycles. While not devoid of truth, these are unmistakably Asian stereotypes as sketched by 1980s Hollywood. This reminds us that cyberpunk’s genre-defining feature is not its Hong Kong-ness, but the Western projection of it.
In an essay concerning the Hong Kong Cityscape in Sci-Fi Cinema, Wong Kin Yuen catalogues Western cinema’s long and troubled engagement with Asia. Wong explores how white-male fantasies of Asian women—from The World of Suzie Wong (1961) to the exploitative eroticism in the Emmanuelle films—reveal Western projections of Asia as fraught with desire, anxiety, and cliché.
The genealogy of cyberpunk is found well before Blade Runner. Across anglophone storytelling, fantasies of the Orient as Exotic Other are always intertwined with anxieties of an Asian-dominated future. We can see this in examples as early as the fictional lands of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu (1816) and James Hilton’s Shangri-La (1933). In a treatise excavating Asian depictions in Hollywood cinema, professor Gina Marchetti traces the providence of Asian Futurism to the anxieties of the ‘yellow peril’, itself based in medieval European concerns of Mongolian invasion. That 1300s Western paranoia might infiltrate contemporary sci-fi seems ludicrously anachronistic, yet it explains so much.
Of course, all clichés are skewered by truth. As Western nations close their borders and regress into the delusions of greatness of their imagined pasts, a globalised Asian Futurism appears inevitable. And, visually, there remains something deliciously noirish about Hong Kong. Its neon illumination and cramped and humid streets are sultry and reflective. The city informs a well-established cyberpunk aesthetic that has been developed and deployed by countless visual artists, designers, and directors.
With its characteristic skyscrapers and needle houses, as well as the extent to which high-tech sits alongside traditional culture—stimulating competing sensations of anticipation and nostalgia—Hong Kong’s skyline presents an elaborate complexity that few other cities can match. Yet, as I have argued previously, the emerging sci-fi architecture of Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing appear to replicate Hong Kong’s cyberpunkness, often appearing more Hong Kong than Hong Kong itself. But something deeper stirs at the contemporary Hong Kong–Blade Runner intersection; a resonance between the city and the film’s replicants resisting their designed obsolescence. Both share contested identity, and both battle for self-determination beyond an externally imposed lifespan.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Hugh Davies is a maker, curator and researcher of games and play. His practice explores histories of media devices and cultures of games in the Asia Pacific Region. Awarded a PhD in Art, Design and Architecture from Monash University in 2014, Hugh’s studies in game cultures have been supported with fellowships from Tokyo Art and Space, M+ Museum of Visual Culture and the Hong Kong Design Trust. Davies is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.