After Yang, 2022.
Written and Directed by Kogonada.
Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin H. Min, Ritchie Coster, Sarita Choudhury, Clifton Collins Jr., Haley Lu Richardson, Orlagh Cassidy, Ava DeMary, Lee Wong, Brett Dier, and Eve Lindley.
When his young daughter’s beloved companion, an android named Yang malfunctions, Jake searches for a way to repair him. In the process, Jake discovers the life that has been passing in front of him, reconnecting with his wife and daughter across a distance he didn’t know was there.
As Colin Farrell’s Jake sifts through the memories of recently deceased family humanoid robot Yang (a masterful turn from Justin H. Min balancing deadpan speech patterns with awareness, curiosity, and overflowing humanity), whose initial purpose was to teach their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) about her culture while functioning as a responsible and positively influential older sibling, he finds one where Yang feels disconnected to those same roots and questions what it means to be Chinese. This renders After Yang a remarkably refreshing spin on the age-old tale of artificial intelligence developing sentience, with the sophomore effort from writer and director Kogonada coming across deeply personal in all its aesthetic warmth and meditative tone.
However, there’s also a university quality. Yang grapples with the limitations of knowledge and facts and how, as precious as they are, they will always pale in comparison to lived-in experience, allowing for a greater understanding of identity on those terms. It’s akin to the philosophy that schoolwork is made more relatable and identifiable when it comes down to something more hands-on and exciting rather than learning, memorizing, and reciting details in a manner that stifles any meaningful connection to the material, even if there is an inherent investment. But whereas a teacher can learn through experience to pass along such wisdom in creative and thoughtful ways to future generations, Yang is only Chinese because that’s how he was designed. With that said, After Yang begs the question, what is the purpose of knowledge if it’s hardwired better from the start? He may have all the information, but it’s safe to say he also doesn’t know what it means to be Chinese.
My pasty ass certainly doesn’t have the answer either, nor would I even try to offer a guess (I will save that for the many reviews from Asian people that you should also seek out on this beautiful sci-fi gem), but there’s an undeniable fascination watching Yang essentially living out an unknown life before his previous owners. As for why Jake is accessing these saved memories, it has to do with the suddenness of death and how it escapes not even artificial intelligence. One night everyone goes to bed (with Yang keeping Mika company like usual, carrying out simple tasks like helping her get water if she awakes in the middle of the night) only to find out in the morning that Yang has malfunctioned and possibly permanently powered down.
Such an event impacts each family member differently, naturally with Mika most devastated. Given Yang’s living, speaking existence, it’s not the same as replacing a family pet, which sets Jake out around this orange-hued abstract future to repair shops seeking a fix. Meanwhile, household mother Kyra (an effectively nuanced Jodie Turner-Smith) acknowledges that the presence of Yang enabled her and Jake to slack on their parental duties, ultimately creating a family rift, meaning that this could allow for a fresh start. It’s a clever way of touching on society’s ever-growing dependency on technology, although a family dynamic that could have been further explored.
There is also some urgency in deciding how to handle the situation, considering that Yang’s body is decomposing, which implies an uncanny valley for life. A neighbor also recommends a hacker who believes that the manufacturers could also be storing spyware inside Yang. They are also the same company that will refurbish them for parts, somewhat erasing his existence. While the details about these corporations end there, there is something to be admired about briefly asking questions about the shady goals artificial intelligence can and often is used for.
It’s not long before Jake acquires the memory core, watching them one by one (cleanly presented as energy orbs inside of empty digital space that one touches to transform into first-person perspective videos) and slowly coming to the realization that a life was lived. Without spoiling the details, Yang might have once explored his capacity for love alongside a mysterious woman played by Hayley Lu Richardson (the star of Kogonada’s breakthrough directorial debut Columbus). Nevertheless, as Jake vicariously gets a greater sense of what mattered to Yang, he too begins to feel a sense of loss, subtlety expressed in a quietly profound turn from Colin Farrell. There’s also a museum that views the accessibility of these memories as an important discovery in techno-sapiens, ready to work with Jake on putting together an exhibit.
Based on a short story from Alexander Weinstein, Kogonada has seemingly pulled from and expanded potentially every conceivable aspect of this tale while imbuing it with a minimalistic take on the future that’s rich in an appropriately calming color palette. Exquisitely crafted photography from Benjamin Loeb is aware of when to capture a frame from a distance and when it’s time to get closer to the characters. There are also dashes of infectious energy as the family partakes in an online dance competition that doubles as stylistic opening credits.
The story somewhat distances itself a bit too far from the central family, the longer it goes on to further study Yang, the cumulative emotional power resonates. But not with force, and more so a graceful softness, keeping in the same vein as everything else here. After Yang is a beautiful rumination on a life lived, the importance of all life, what it means to live, and how identity is shaped. Don’t just take this knowledge at face value; experience After Yang.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com