After Yang, 2022.
Written and directed by Kogonada.
Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, and Haley Lu Richardson.
In a near future, a family reckons with questions of love, connection, and loss after their AI helper unexpectedly breaks down.
Writer-director Kogonada modestly steps up his filmmaking scope from debut Columbus with this low-fi(ish) sci-fi drama based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” Though the genre is arguably oversaturated with films which ponder the “humanity” of synthetic entities, After Yang finds a truly singular niche within which to broach the subject.
In an advanced yet somewhat recognisable future, Jake (Colin Farrell), his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and their Chinese adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) live with Yang (Justin H. Min), a “technosapien.” That is, a humanoid robot superficially indistinguishable from an actual person, who Jake and Kyra bought to teach Mika about her heritage.
However, disaster strikes when Yang suddenly stops working, and Jake’s attempt to have the robot fixed causes him to learn that Yang had actually been recording brief “memories” each day against protocol. As Jake delves into Yang’s memories to understand the nature of his possibly-departing family member, he discovers truths he never could’ve anticipated.
What immediately differentiates Kogonada’s film from other similarly-minded sci-fi joints is how unconcerned it is with the physical realities of the future. World-building certainly exists within the movie, but you shouldn’t expect epic sweeping establishing shots of the shiny futuristic skyline, because – possibly motivated by budgetary concerns – it’s one of the least-extravagant films of its genre imaginable.
Sure, we see occasional slivers of a fancy backdrop and the interior of a car passing through a nifty fluorescent tunnel, but most of the futurism is conceptual and emotional. For instance, Jake makes a living running a tea shop and one of his patrons expresses frustration that he doesn’t sell “tea crystals,” which we are left to presume are one of the many modern conveniences of the time. It’s also suggested there’s an undercurrent of prejudice against clones, which are implied to be pervasive in society.
After Yang is first and foremost a family drama wrapped around a forensic detective story, as Jake scrubs through Yang’s massive, video game-y library of seconds-long recordings/memories to try and make sense of the robot’s engagement with the world. Namely, was he capable of expressing true feeling and independent thought after all?
It’s not really a spoiler to say that the fragments Jake witnesses are often lacking in context, and it’s not until much later in the story that both he and the audience will appreciate the full extent of Yang’s “existence.” It’s clear early on, however, that the recurring presence of a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) in Yang’s memories will be key to understanding the content of his digital mind.
If much of the film centering around Jake trawling through a video library might sound clinical, Kogonada is smart to anchor most of the vignettes in emotional concepts damn-near universal to humans; love, family, loss, and so on. Watching these memories, we’re forced to consider why a robot would choose to keep them, and the liminal, uncharted space between human emotional processes and an “objective” robotic recording.
The gulf between memory and record is cleverly depicted during soupy montages where characters pore over their own interactions with Yang, their subjective memories cut opposite Yang’s recordings. It’s perhaps an esoteric way to explore a machine’s potential to approximate aspects of human living, but Kogonada balances the abstract with the poignant, centering Jake’s investigation around his and his daughter’s genuine love for Yang (his wife, not so much).
The film’s more complex ideas are grounded at almost all times by the efforts of its cast. Colin Farrell, who has been on quite the indie winning streak in recent years, gives a performance more subdued than many perhaps even thought possible from the effervescent Irish actor, but one suffused with a rich emotional strata. Yet in many respects the heart and soul of the film is Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, who as Yang’s younger sister Mika is most pained by his potential loss.
Mika relied on Yang, his databank filled with information about Chinese culture, as a link to her origins. Yang helped her come to terms with her identity as an adopted child, and she understandably doesn’t want to say goodbye. Tjandrawidjaja brings more to the part than merely being a cute, sad kid, and the sweet interactions between herself and Farrell are especially moving. If any role here feels disappointingly underwritten, it’s surely mother Kyra, with the talented Jodie Turner-Smith getting not a whole lot to do beyond suggest the family moves on from Yang.
As won’t surprise anyone who saw Columbus, this is another technically pristine offering from the filmmaker, both in terms of its moment-to-moment framing and deliciously precise cutting. Kogonada even exhibits a rare instance of playfulness during the film’s sure-to-become-iconic opening titles sequence, which plays out over footage of an online dance competition where Jake, Kyra, Mika, and Yang attempt to dance in sync while battling it out against 30,000 other families over the Internet.
The energetic dance-off, constantly cutting between different families to the beat, is so outrageously – if jarringly – euphoric that I immediately went back and watched it again. On the audio side, composer Aska Matsumiya delivers a heart-rending musical score comprised primarily of tender piano pieces and searing violin swells, at all times enhancing the haunting power of the story.
If easier to recommend as a drama about loss than a sci-fi film about the future of technology, After Yang splits the difference with originality and insight, offering up a full-hearted, often incredibly moving character study with a piercing genre gloss. Sci-fi has long pondered the “humanity” of robotic beings, but rarely has it done so with the creativity and well-earned emotion of Kogonada’s challenging family drama.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.