“Mellow, yet moving and confident.”
by Ken Bakely
Despite a tech-driven, futuristic setting, After Yang, the new film by Kogonada, is not merely about technology as a catalyst, at least in an isolated context. Through its accentuated sci-fi lens, the movie instead makes us immediately cognizant of how we perceive and reflect upon the people in our lives. It accomplishes this in a mellow, yet moving and confident way, and it does so by introducing us to Yang (Justin H. Min), a “technosapien” – a robot essentially indistinguishable in appearance and behavior from a human – who has become a member of a family that consists of Jake (Colin Farrell), his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner Smith), and young daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Yang is a staple of the household. When the family participates in a virtual dance contest with families around the world, he lets them enter as a four-member team. He teaches Mika songs and facts, and she accepts him as a beloved older brother, becoming particularly close. He can carry long – but still curious – conversations with Jake or Kyra. But one day, Yang begins malfunctioning, first ever so slightly, and then overnight, becomes completely unresponsive.
Jake tries to figure out a way to repair him, but the company that manufactures the androids doesn’t make things so easy. As Yang is tended to, disassembled, and evaluated, Jake considers not only Yang’s importance to his daughter, but what kind of life the technosapien lived in his own right. His family was not Yang’s first, and elusive, piecemeal snapshots of the past exist for Jake’s digital perusal, forming the foundational elements of a wider mystery of who this is, and what he represents to all those he has met. These are the questions that Kogonada, adapting a short story by Alexander Weinstein, dives deepest and most comprehensively into – not merely the individual parts of Yang’s past, but what he means. This is a movie focused on memory: not only the memories of an individual that are poked and prodded for their missing links, but what it means to be remembered by others, and how experiences of our own can linger and influence the impacts we leave – in a sense, abstractly becoming someone else’s. By having this happen in the physically deconstructed memory of an advanced computer system, Kogonada is able to make palpable an otherwise implicit notion, putting the action in a time when humans are no longer the sole proprietors and subjects of the human condition.
It’s a subtle shift in perspective, slowly revealing its layers – the director has a particular inclination towards abstract, careful contemplation, as those familiar with his debut feature, Columbus, will know. Here, his vision of a high-tech future is still one that’s calmly realized, mostly within the confines of the family’s earthy home, shot by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb in soft, dim lighting. Sometimes the movie moves with such a light touch that it’s no longer clear it can keep all its weighty concepts in balance. That After Yang does take occasional flights of visual or thematic fancy – such as the fast-paced depiction of the family dance competition that runs over the opening credits, and Yang’s network of memories are depicted as points in a vast, virtual galaxy – can make some of the film’s in-between moments feel thinner by comparison; sometimes its meditative silence lets us linger on its ideas, and there are other times when it feels so close to a grander conclusion, but slips away at the last second.
There are many others, however, when its style and substance meet in a delicate and gorgeous harmony, giving its characters room to breathe as they grapple with their great unknowns. Consider a scene when Jake, who sells tea for a living, is discussing his trade and passion with Yang in a flashback sequence; he wants to communicate why he loves tea. He discusses a documentary that changed his life in college. But he can’t quite articulate what he loves about tea – its physical properties or what it means to him – in succinct wording. Yang offers to conjure up some facts about tea. Jake politely demurs. They let the moment linger. They can’t quite meet each other in the middle. Farrell and Min, who each deliver such considerate and nuanced performances in their own right, work together wonderfully in the scene, and Kogonada comes closest to After Yang’s deepest and most well-realized thesis, considering the film’s ruminations on social connection, identity, technology, and what it means to both remember and be remembered. All of the mysteries that the movie eventually guides us through in the quiltwork of Yang’s life, and Jake’s journey to finding it out, are all rooted in these concepts; everything that considers how Yang has impacted the people who’ve known him has to be reconciled with these now-messy ideas of human interaction. In its quietly grand sweep, After Yang is a moving work that often impresses, and when most comfortably aligned, rises to soar with a precise elegance and grace.