In After Yang, the sophomore narrative feature from video essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada, the near-future boasts a familiarity that is both comforting and disquieting. The idea that humanity continues to thrive despite the threat of imminent cataclysmic disaster certainly provides solace, but this seemingly idealistic alternative turns out to have its own distinct failings. In this timeline, childcare is virtually handed off to a class of “techno-sapien” laborers, purchased as programmable live-in nannies for children. Though it might meander at times, After Yang—based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang”—is always emotionally intelligent and artfully prescient, showcasing Kogonada’s penchant for sparse storytelling even if the narrative throughlines don’t always feel as rewarding as the film’s aesthetic splendors.
We’re introduced to one such future family in perhaps the most entertaining way possible. The film’s title card appears during a virtual dance competition, featuring families from around the world competing via synchronized choreography. Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) wear matching unitards with their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and her android brother Yang (Justin H. Minh), the family of four performing with nimble accuracy and an appropriate hint of playfulness. As such, it’s surprising when they’re eliminated for being out of sync—until they realize that Yang is robotically repeating the same dance move on a loop. Clearly having suffered a major malfunction, Jake resolves to find a way to fix Yang. Krya, however, sees this as an opportunity to let go of their robot nanny and finally step up for Mika as proper caretakers. Yet Mika can’t help but genuinely mourn the absence of her older brother, unable to understand how someone so integral to her life could simply cease to function merely as the result of planned obsolescence and “certified refurbished” scams. Jake and Mika effectively team up to search for a way to save Yang—the pursuit of which teaches Jake about Yang’s hidden interiority, and Mika about the precious (if fleeting) gift of love and connection.
After Yang manages to weave together tender truths concerning grief and the delicateness of human connection while also making astute, sober insights on the future of corporeal autonomy and consumer-based surveillance systems. Much of the film concerns the revelation that Yang actually stored “memories,” meaning he recorded several seconds each day that felt particularly noteworthy. This memory bank serves as an archive documenting Yang’s daily activities, revealing connections and observations that feel solidly human—raising questions as to why these “technos” are deemed so disposable outside of their ability to perform domestic tasks. This feels particularly heinous when examined through the simple fact that many of these “technos” are non-white, marketed as learning tools for adopted children to maintain a connection to the countries they were born in. This leads to the literal commodification of non-white bodies, manufactured and sold to do the labor of parenting, educating and loving “siblings” that are not their own. Though there’s never a doubt that Yang’s family cherishes and adores him—proven by the insistence of Jake and Mika to repair him—the mechanisms surrounding his existence are still clouded in an air of dubiousness. In this sense, the film evokes flashes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which is similarly concerned with the commodification of human connection and the oft-imposed limitations of individual autonomy.
Though they’re ostensibly different entities, Minh and Tjandrawidjaja have a sort of palpable, natural chemistry that feels authentic between close siblings. The playful cadence of their nicknames, giddy whispers from the hallway and the heart-wrenching pain of absence all translate with particular accuracy. These performers’ scenes—whether shared or not—often steal the spotlight from arguably more seasoned actors. In comparison, Farrell and Turner-Smith’s characters feel strangely unmoored for a couple that participates in familial dance battles and gently parents their precocious daughter. Aside from flashback glimpses of caring caresses years earlier, there is little evidence that Jake and Kyra honestly like each other. Surely some of their coldness can be attributed to grief over Yang and evidently mounting career pressures, but moments of affection are oddly scant for a couple that hardly appears embittered or spiteful.
Much of the film is punctuated by Mitski’s cover of the song “Glide,” a song which first appeared in the 2001 film All About Lily Chou-Chou as performed by the titular fictional band. Mitski’s rendition is particularly haunting, only rivaled by Tjandrawidjaja’s gorgeous, girlish croon when she sings what she only knows as “Yang’s favorite song” to her mother and father. Japanese electronic music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto contributed to the film’s score alongside Aska Matsumiya, conjuring a dreamlike sound that feels distinctly futuristic. Everything executed in After Yang is done with utmost appreciation for the entire craft of cinema, particularly due to Kogonada’s intense involvement at various conceptual levels. Much like with his previous film Columbus, the filmmaker also served as the editor, already having extensive experience through crafting video essays. However, this insular cinematic preciousness also leads to an over-polished slickness—occasionally sabotaging the visceral emotional throughline of the film. Elegant shots of characters sitting alone—oftentimes connected to another human solely through a screen—are initially captivating, but quickly devolve into simple vehicles for cinematography set-ups. Their subsequent emotional pull is bogged down by the sheer overabundance of these technically savvy shots, never diverging from the clinical sterility of Jake sitting aimlessly at home or Mika staring out of a futuristic vehicle’s window. Loneliness can certainly be communicated by negative space and rocky relationships—proven with gusto in Kogonada’s Columbus—yet this tactic feels uninspired here. With a more intimate familial dynamic, After Yang begs for a realistic touch to permeate the otherwise sleek sci-fi fixtures, but is ultimately overshadowed by a calculated coldness that feels at odds with the film’s overwhelmingly optimistic humanism.
While After Yang tackles heady and heartful subjects, the film’s tendency to meander can sometimes feel counterintuitive to its strong emotional potential. During these moments that are more plodding than pensive, the otherwise tranquil thoughtfulness that envelops the audience is momentarily dissipated. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for the film to have you back in its clutches, presenting perplexing paradoxes about the human condition while questioning what, exactly, constitutes autonomy and personhood. Sharply stylistic and acted with a whole lot of heart, After Yang may not surpass the solemn beauty of Columbus, but this cerebral sci-fi departure for Kogonada definitely delivers.
Stars: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Minh, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson, Sarita Choudhury
Release Date: March 4, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan