Kogonada’s sci-fi followup to Columbus is just as mournful and architecturally-minded as its predecessor.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.)
Science fiction is a genre that, when handled with care, can wield the ability to explore intimate parts of life through narratives that explore the unknown. Kogonada’s sophomore effort, After Yang, seamlessly blends common sci-fi components with a narrative deeply rooted in humanism, while looking beyond the typical action-packed tropes that make up much of the genre, to paint a poignant portrait of the complexity of human nature.
Set at some point in the near future, After Yang tells the story of a picturesque family — tea seller Jake (Colin Farrell), his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (newcomer Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), and their “techno-sapien” android Yang (Justin H. Min) who was acquired second-hand to serve as Mika’s big brother and connect her to her roots.
When Yang abruptly malfunctions after the family is eliminated from their regular dance competition (which is a highlight of the movie and is probably the best dance scene since Oscar Isaac’s iconic sequence in Ex Machina), the family is left devastated by the loss. What follows is a breathtaking rumination on a family wrestling with grief in different ways.
As Jake sets out to get Yang fixed for the sake of his distraught daughter, he discovers that Yang had his own memories stored within his hardware. Throughout the film, Jake becomes curious about the person whom he has taken on as a son, and thus embarks on a journey of discovery as he explores Yang’s memories, which we see through short clips told from different perspectives. He learns that despite being a robot, Yang had lived a full life of his own before joining the family. Like any other human roaming the Earth, he has the ability to feel and think just like anyone else.
The memories eventually lead him to a young woman named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson, who also starred in Kogonada’s debut Columbus), a barista whose role in the narrative and Yang’s life remains a mystery until we edge closer to the end.
Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s 2016 short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, After Yang explores themes of memory, loss, and identity. Yang doesn’t struggle with being an android as much as he does with being Chinese. He often questions what makes him Chinese, as he has been programmed to recite “Chinese fun facts” but can’t access any memories of his homeland.
Like Columbus, After Yang uses minimalism and architectural spaces to craft a detailed, serene, and lush atmosphere that feels immensely warm despite appearing to be cold and distant at first glance. It delicately observes the relationship between humanity and technology. In this world, advanced technology, like self-driving vehicles and robots purchased as live-in babysitters, and nature have been weaved together to create a space where androids and humans can coexist. Here, people aren’t only dependent on technology, but literally consider it to be vital members of a family.
Farrell, who evokes his performance in The Lobster, and Turner-Smith deliver understated performances that perfectly complement the intimate and subtle tone. Although various tech specialists speak about Yang as if he were simply a piece of technology that must be thrown away, he has proven to be much more than that, having left a noticeable impact on the lives of those he’s been in contact with. While androids have a long history of being portrayed as emotionless, Min brings a softness to Yang, who is imbued with so much sincerity that it’s impossible to tell he isn’t an actual human.
With After Yang, Kogonada once again finds the beauty within the mundane parts of life and has cemented himself as one of the few storytellers right now who has a keen understanding of how to capture the inner workings of humanity in its most raw form.