Kogonada’s After Yang is a mostly-successful and visually pleasing sci-fi drama about loss, memory, and what it means to be human.
In an undisclosed future time where humans, clones and androids seemingly coexist in harmony, one family explores the ideas of technology, love, and memory when their android unexpectedly breaks down.
Yang (Justin H. Min) is a “techno-sapien” helper adopted by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to help their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) connect with her Chinese heritage. Yang is as much a member of the family as any of them, and when his technological lifespan seems to reach its end, Jake discovers a server full of his memories, deeper and more complex than he could have imagined.
Several ideas and themes are present in Kogonada’s sci-fi tale all while avoiding the normal trappings of the genre. Based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the world of After Yang goes to great lengths to show us that though this appears to be a post-racial world with its multi-ethnic family a picture-perfect ideal, society hasn’t let go of the notion of race. Yang acts as a big brother to Mika, purchased to give her Chinese “fun facts” as a way of integrating her into her heritage all while he himself asks the question, “Am I Chinese?”
Asian influence is everywhere in this society, and though never explained, one can assume it points to China becoming the dominant cultural influence. Japanese-style design and flowing cotton clothing are the norm, as is adopting Asian children. Farrell’s Jake even runs a tea shop further illustrating the influence of Asian culture. It is through Jake that the story unfolds as he comes to identify with Yang through his memory bank.
For Jake, Yang has always been a machine, albeit one that is adored by the family. Through exploring Yang’s database of memories, Jake learns that the techno-sapien was capable of so much more than he thought possible: brotherly love, curiosity, identity of self, and even romantic love. First exploring Yang’s memories through his own remembrance of events that he featured in, the film builds as Jake comes to the foregone conclusion that Yang truly was his own being. A low-key Farrell is well-cast, as is Smith who ultimately feels underused as the audience’s focus on the story is almost exclusively through Jake’s eyes.
The second feature of South Korean filmmaker Kogonada has a lot in common with his 2017 drama Columbus, only this time instead of architecture, artificial intelligence is at the centre of the story. Long, slow sequences, often filmed at a distance slowly play out on screen. Like Jake’s constant tea brewing, this is a story to sip and appreciate, rather than be truly entertained by. This is not a sci-fi movie for the masses. In perhaps the most entertaining sequence, Kogonada has his on-screen families engage in a high-energy dance competition as the opening credits role. It’s only a shame that this level of exuberance and fun isn’t revisited in the rest of the film.
Audiences won’t find any new revelations here that haven’t already been covered in everything from Blade Runner and A.I. to Bicentennial Man, but Kogonada’s presentation is still a pleasing one, even if at times it feels the director chose style over a more engaging pace. Like a good cup of tea, perhaps After Yang is one that will delicately reveal more as time goes with repeat viewings.