Film Review – After Yang
Writer/director Kogonada’s After Yang (2022) is a film of subtle, moving power. Its effect doesn’t make itself known right away but washes over us like a dream. Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Kogonada’s sci-fi tale explores loss, grief, memory, family, and the invisible ties that bind us. With his previous Columbus (2017) and now with this latest effort, he has become a filmmaker of serious consideration. His stories may not contain big, sweeping dramatic moments, but are filled with grace and beauty. The themes are not simply explained but are felt within our hearts. Kogonada’s artistry lies in the very elements that make us human.
Much of the film’s success lies in the brilliant performances of the cast. We have a group of actors all working together in unity. They have the kind of dynamic where the smallest line of dialogue bears heavy dramatic weight, or where the slightest gesture reveals deeper truths of each character. Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) are a married couple with an adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). They live in a modern style home sometime in the near future. In hopes of providing Mika a link to her Asian heritage, Jake and Kyra purchase a “Techno-Sapien” named Yang (Justin H. Min). Yang is like the futuristic version of Siri or Alexa – an A.I. assistant in human form. He has become so ingrained within the family that they have accepted him as one of their own.
One day, Yang’s robotic body breaks down. Jake promises Kyra and Mika that he will get him operating again, but the task is more difficult than expected. While trying to get Yang fixed, Jake ends up getting ahold of his memory bank. It’s at this point where the narrative flips upside down, as Jake learns that Yang has been recording several seconds of each day of his existence. Jake looks through Yang’s memories and discovers an entire life even before he was purchased. Visions of nature, of people walking on the street, of Jake’s family, and of a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson).
Each of these recordings reveal what Yang felt were important to him. The person Jake embraced as a son had secrets and lived experiences he was never aware of. Even the way Yang saw Jake’s family added an entirely different perspective. How would we react if we saw ourselves through the eyes of another person? Would we like what we saw? Jake’s journey becomes one of self-reflection. Seeing the world through Yang allows him to examine his own life. The relationships Jake has with Kyra and Mika become clearer. The perfect life that he tries so hard to maintain may not be as perfect as he imagined. The things most important to him may have fallen to the wayside. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be happy? As Jake learns more about his robotic son, the more he learns about himself.
There are few films that depict memory as poetically. The moments we keep are not scenes that go on endlessly but are flashes of images and the feelings we associate with them. A smile, a kiss, a favorite toy, a tragic accident, etc. – these are all fleeting occurrences that build each of us into unique individuals. Seeing Yang’s memories roll one after another, with sounds and dialogue overlapping, create a kaleidoscopic effect. He may not have been human in the physical sense, but he displayed a level of understanding that made him more than just an android. When he stops working, the family reacts as if a loved one had become fatality sick. The sense of grief they go through is real. Just like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) or Terrence Malick’s The Tree Life (2011), After Yang argues that nothing is more vitally human than our memories.
Kogonada’s direction (along with Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography) places the action in closed rooms, with subjects framed within windows and doorways. The family’s home is structured with glass walls everywhere, so that characters are often facing their own reflections. This approach creates an intimate, voyeuristic atmosphere, as though we are witnessing conversations meant to be private. The music by ASKA is gentle and unobtrusive, adding to the meditative, almost zen-like tone. This isn’t to say that Kogonada doesn’t allow for levity or humor. Many will talk about the opening credits, where the family (along with a host of other families) compete in a spirted dance competition. The energy and enthusiasm of the dancing appears to work in contrast with everything else, but somehow Kogonada makes it work. It’s as if he sets us up with something fun and boisterous before jumping headfirst into the proceedings.
As the lead character, Colin Farrell proves yet again that he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. He has incredible range, able to tackle any kind of character in any kind of movie. It’s remarkable how he molds himself to fit a role, like a chameleon. As proof of his skills, compare what he does in The Batman (2022) and what he does here. Both movies were released on the same weekend but feature characters on opposite ends of the acting spectrum. As Jake, Farrell delivers a work from the inside out. His performance is not exaggerated or over the top but is held within. He uses every small detail as a peek into himself. By doing so, whenever Jake opens up to larger degree, the impact is felt. This is shown in what might be the best scene, when Jake explains his love of tea to Yang. While Yang maybe able to recite countless facts about tea, Jake shares his feelings on a different wavelength. He describes the texture of the leaves and the process of creating tea. The taste takes a backseat to the ritualistic nature of Jake’s work. Although on the outside, the conversation may not seem like much, but upon closer examination, it reveals Jake’s very soul.
Above all else, After Yang is a film about empathy. It shows that life – in all its mystery, absurdity, and splendor – is precious. In times of heartache and sorrow, where hope is at its weakest, empathy can help pull us out of the abyss. That is the profound insight Kogonada offers to us. This may not appeal to some viewers, but those that can meet it on its own terms will revel in the depth of its intelligence and compassion. Even long after seeing it, it has remained fixed in my mind – like a treasured memory not soon to be forgotten.