They are age-old questions: what is life? And what does it mean to be human? These two themes may be central to the heart of Kogonada’s delicate new film, After Yang, but they are only part of a much more profound meditation on connectedness and love.
Colin Farrell is Jake, a husband and father who is at that point in middle age where he accepts what his life has become, even while carrying a slight hint of sadness with him. This is evident in the opening minutes, even before the family’s android, Yang (Justin H. Min), suddenly stops working. The disruption is more than a mere inconvenience of technological failure. Yang, known in this future setting as a technosapien, is the fourth member of their family in many ways. And as happens far too often in life, it takes losing Yang for Jake and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to fully understand how much he means to them.
It’s not the same for the couple’s young daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who has never known life without Yang. He and others like him were invented to act as older siblings to help international adoptees connect with their ancestral heritage. Upon adopting their daughter from China, Jake and Kyra bought their “certified refurbished” model from a secondhand shop. Throughout her young life, Mika has learned history, art, and language through Yang’s “Chinese fun facts.” But he has been more than a walking, talking search engine. He is, in every sense, the older brother she would never have. A living, breathing person who comforted her in the middle of the night, cared for her after school and completed their foursome in nightly virtual dance contests. For Mika, Yang isn’t like a big brother. He simply is.
Movies set in “the future” often delve into the ways things could go horribly wrong if our “what if” dream scenarios were to pass. Technology waging war against us, the wealthy finding new and increasingly cruel ways to exploit the masses, and more. Though After Yang does hint at the intrusiveness of tech companies and their privacy-invading advances, Kogonada concerns himself more with people and the tenderness of their hearts. The spare details about the world our central characters inhabit are alluring but also leave so many unresolved questions and a vague sense of frustration. And yet, there is so much more to feel and ponder. At only 96 minutes, every scene feels essential.
Besides, Jake lives in this future and doesn’t need to educate himself about it by studying the notices on a bulletin board or newspaper headlines about wars between China and the US, and he doesn’t spend his time thinking about economic disparities either. We know these things exist because we get glimpses of them, or because we know Jake lives outside the city and bought his used model from a store that has gone out of business. (“I told you we should have bought a new one,” Kyra sighs.) As he sets about the task of trying to find someone to repair their incapacitated robot, Jake is forced to confront his own emotions, which become more complex when he unlocks hidden memories in Yang’s internal storage.
Colin Farrell gives one of his most refined performances. A sensitive and loving parent, well aware of his familial responsibilities though he has become somewhat careless in fulfilling them. Carting Yang from one shop to another, his desperation to restore order to the house is palpable when Mika becomes increasingly distraught and Kyra more frustrated. Kogonada doesn’t waste his time but also doesn’t rush. It’s a skillful mastery of pacing as he allows each family member the time they need to process their experience and the audience to feel it with them.
Indeed, Jake is the central character, but Jodie Turner-Smith is equally lovely, particularly when she has her own moment to wander into Yang’s room, remembering and feeling and experiencing the reality of what they are on the verge of losing. To protect her own heart, Kyra has in many ways separated herself from seeing Yang as much more than an appliance. When she opens up, Turner-Smith relishes in the moment and reminds us of her grace and skill.
For all of the beautiful sadness we see in Farrell and Turner-Smith, there is a different type of beauty in Justin H. Min’s performance as Yang. We mostly experience him through the memories of others, but in that journey, we see him as the embodiment of a soul, a person who had a life and a past, who cares deeply, and who has dreams. Even if he simply dreams of dreaming. Min breathes depth and complexity into the character and, by extension, into the film itself. After Yang would not work without him.
Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Kogonada proves his gift for imagery and emotion once again. In his hands, feeling is so much more interesting than doing. Character is more fascinating than plot. When this piece of technology breaks down, After Yang doesn’t ask the question, “How do we live without it?” but “How do we live without him?” And isn’t that a much more interesting conversation?