- Director: Kogonada
- Writer: Kogonada
- Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson, Sarita Choudhury
Kogonada’s sophomore feature further establishes the writer and director as a unique voice amongst new filmmakers. His 2017 debut, Columbus, explored how beauty can be found amongst the mundane, and After Yang contains similarly profound ideas. Specifically, the film is about preserving the memories of those we love after they’re gone. What will we remember about them? And what will they remember of us?
To call After Yang a sci-fi film feels a bit like cheating. Yes, it takes place in the distant future. Yes, its titular character is a cyborg. Yes, the technology is far more advanced than ours. But it also feels very familiar, as if we’re not too far off from that world becoming a reality. I liken it to the world of Her, where people still go about their everyday lives, with some minor tweaks to its aesthetic. Kogonada clearly has an eye for filming spaces beautifully – Columbus mostly used existing architecture with unique framing – and it can’t be overstated how much Alexandra Schaller’s production design meshes with Kogonada’s aesthetic.
Yang (Justin H. Min) is a lifelike robot, owned by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to help their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) feel more in touch with her heritage. But, not long into the film, Yang begins to malfunction and shuts down, and Jake and Kyra must decide what to do with him if revival isn’t possible. Kogonada doesn’t spell out exactly when the film takes place – the only hint is a line from Farrell where he emphasizes twentieth century, as if to imply it was long ago – but the corporate runaround is still nicely intact. Much of the first and second act involves Jake trudging Yang’s corpse around, only to be told that whoever he turns to can’t help him.
Soon, Jake finds that he can still access Yang’s memories, and this leads to some of the film’s most poignant sequences. Kogonada visualizes Yang’s memory bank as a kind of endless galaxy, with each memory represented as a distant star. Some memories are more banal: wind rustling the branches of a tree, or Jake and Kyra sitting closely together on a couch. Some are more profound: an extended conversation between Yang and Jake about the fulfilling richness of tea and why it holds such importance to Jake (he owns a tea shop). It’s here where Kogonada utilizes the subjectivity of memories, as he inserts multiple takes of the same line of dialogue, which he returns to occasionally throughout the film. The words are the same, but the meaning changes just slightly when the inflection is different.
Eventually Jake comes to the curator (Sarita Choudhury) of a museum exhibit dedicated to cybernetic beings, which looks frighteningly similar to the infamous real-life “Bodies” exhibit that reportedly used Chinese prisoners for its displays. Perhaps Kogonada is making a statement with this overt reference, but I wasn’t able to parse what its ultimate goal was.
Colin Farrell isn’t discussed as much since he took a step away from leading big-budget “leading man” roles, but the actor has turned in plenty of formidable performances in recent years. After Yang may not be the showiest of roles, but Farrell is no less impressive here, quietly conveying Jake’s inner turmoil as he considers potentially losing a treasured family member. Justin H. Min also crucially adds pathos to Yang’s understanding of the world around him. It can be easy for an actor portraying a robot to act coldly, but Min imbues Yang with a humanity that makes it easy to forget that he’s only technically alive.
The second half of the film is a kind of Citizen Kane homage, as Jake tries to piece together the parts of Yang he didn’t know existed before. A mysterious woman (Haley Lu Richardson) continuously pops up in Yang’s memories, and Jake tries to track her down. Cyborgs don’t pursue romantic relationships, so why are so many of Yang’s memories populated with longing looks at her? This development isn’t framed as a bombshell revelation, and it’s one of Kogonada’s smarter choices. Instead, it fits the film’s overall theme, in trying to make a complete picture of a person when only fractured bits are available.
After Yang is clearly indebted to plenty of other properties – it is adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” – but Kogonada makes the film feel like its own unique piece. It’s clear that the filmmaker is working with a much bigger budget here than with Columbus, but, whereas other filmmakers would use their newfound status to make something more bombastic and flashy, Kogonada has made another beautiful film that has something unique and important to say. Though it’s still early, After Yang stands out as easily the best film of the year so far.
After Yang will premiere in theaters and on Showtime, both on March 4, 2022.
- While it would be great for After Yang to stick around until next year – something that’s not totally unheard of for films that premiere out of Sundance – I worry that A24 will prioritize bigger, flashier films around Oscar time.