Review: The artificial but emotional intelligence of 'After Yang'
I’m supposed to be here telling you about “After Yang,” the new movie written and directed by Kogonada.
And I’m gonna. I’m gonna.
But first, I’ve got to tell you to watch “Columbus.”
The delicate, warming air of that 2017 drama, Kogonada’s feature debut, has to cover “After Yang” a bit. “Columbus” is too beautiful and special not to — a gentle, forgiving story about family, purpose and two aimless souls played by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, who briefly skirt the same void together. That void looks an awful lot like the modernist architectural wonders of Columbus, Ohio. “Columbus” loves its characters, and it loves the viewer. All cinema should be so nice.
The calmly surreal “After Yang” is just about as nice. To paraphrase the title of one of my favorite Japanese Breakfast songs, Kogonada’s sophomore feature is soft sci-fi from another planet.
Yang (Justin H. Min) is an artificial humanoid, sold to a family in some near-ish future to act as a big brother to the couple’s adopted Chinese daughter. The girl, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), loves Yang, who’s been preloaded with fun facts about Mika's birth culture and a fatalistic kind of helpfulness toward her kind parents, Jake and Kyra (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith).
But then Yang stops working. As in, he breaks. Jake, a daydreaming tea salesman, searches for a way to repair Yang. Given access to the android’s secret world of memories while working with a researcher (the wonderful Sarita Choudhury, needing more to do), he discovers that life means the most, maybe, to those who weren’t technically alive.
The world of “After Yang” is a comfortable one, where the decades ahead usher in breathable fabrics, soft space-age lighting and mustached men who are passionate about archaic ways of making tea. Scenery oscillates from green to gauzy. Kogonada waves away harsh machinery; he can just show a video call as two actors standing square in the frame, addressing the audience directly.
Colder futurism does hang like a fog — Jake’s business can’t compete with the crystal-based beverages people prefer, and a grin-stretching opening credits sequence features the cast busting moves in this world’s nightly family dance contests that happen over the web. (I mean, that’s just the Wii.) But even when Jake has to confront his “son’s” mechanical nature, the camera seems to shy from the faux-bloody reality of it all. “After Yang” decides to give everyone, everything, their dignity.
One character says, “It was the searching that compelled me,” and that right there illuminates everything Kogonada does with the time he’s given. Genre flicks love to explore What It Means To Be Human — look back at “Metropolis,” “Frankenstein” and “A.I.,” or think like three seconds ago to “WandaVision,” “Eternals” or “Titane.” This one, perhaps to a fault, trades the robo-histrionics for lovely memories and little symbolic touches that show, not tell. But they s-h-o-w.
A lesson Yang gives Mika about family is found in a grafted tree branch. That tea shop, we’re told, would traditionally be a family business, and it’s with Yang whom Jake shares its secrets: “Let’s see if we taste the world together.” A mysterious young woman played by Richardson, Kogonada’s leading lady from “Columbus,” is named Ada, surely a nod to Ada Lovelace, the mother of computer programming. One of my favorite bits: repeated references to 2001 Japanese movie “All About Lily Chou-Chou,” a lyrical downer about technology and youthful alienation. (It played at AFS Cinema some months ago — add another rec to the queue.)
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If there is anything “After Yang” loves more than a wink, it’s a screenplay gut-punch. Again, maybe to the point of glut, but this critic isn’t complaining too much about thoughtful words.
“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly,” Kogonada quotes Lao Tzu.
“There’s not something without nothing,” a character reminds the viewer after the film has spent some time staring down oblivion.
You’d be right to call “After Yang” meandering, and maybe even an iota navel-gazing. Believe it or not, there actually are more layers in this cake. (I am not the writer to unpack its exploration of what it means to be an Asian person or an adoptee in an indifferent society, but there’s good stuff here.)
Messy grief is something I, and most, do know at least a little about. “After Yang” knows you can find a way to keep someone alive, in some form, but that they’ll never be the same. It knows that ghosts linger. This is a reason why “Columbus” and “After Yang” work so well in conversation. There’s the void, and there’s you, and there’s me. Inevitably, only two of those will be left, and the void’s never lost a staring contest.
Maybe it’s there that “After Yang” feels most generous. We’re never privy to the full lives of even our most beloved, the movie believes. Isn’t it nice, when they’re gone, that there will always be more of them to discover?
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Haley Lu Richardson
Rated: PG for language, some thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Watch: In theaters and streaming on Showtime