This review was originally published in conjunction with After Yang’s debut screenings at the 2022 Sundance International Film Festival. It has been updated, reformatted, and republished for the film’s theatrical and streaming release.
There are so many ways to approach science fiction, from realistic, science-driven stories to fluffy space-fantasy, and from grim dystopian warning stories to sunny takes on the future we could build if we make the right choices. But at heart, a surprisingly vast percentage of the genre boils down to variants on the same basic question: What does being human actually mean? Some stories ask that question by contrasting humanity with non-human life, from aliens to AIs to near-human creations like clones or cyborgs. Others put humans in radically different settings from Earth, to see what about the human condition remains consistent across space and time.
A24’s After Yang, the second feature film from video essayist and Columbus writer-director Kogonada, takes up the old refrain again, this time by dropping an artificial life form in among a blended family, and gauging their responses to him. But Kogonada, adapting Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” takes a new approach to the familiar metaphor. Shortly into the film, that artificial life form malfunctions and becomes inoperable, and each member of the family has to decide not just how to move on without him, but who he was and what he meant to them in the first place.
Jake (Colin Farrell) the father in that family, runs a traditionally minded tea shop, which is clearly struggling to find customers. Still, he pretends to his wife Kyra (Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith) that it’s bustling to the point where it cuts into his availability for family time. It’s less clear what Kyra does, but she works long hours, and feels overstretched by his absences, which strain their marriage.
Their young daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) spends more time with the family android Yang (Justin H. Min) than with her parents, though her attachment is understandable, considering that he was designed as a devoted big brother. When Jake and Kyra adopted Mika, they bought Yang from a company that expressly designs surrogate older siblings for Chinese adoptees, to teach them Mandarin, feed them “fun facts” about Chinese history and culture, and otherwise connect them with their heritage. But Yang isn’t just an elaborate babysitting device — he’s kind, supportive, and sensitive, not just to Mika’s needs, but to everyone’s. And when he breaks down, so does the family, in small and subtle ways.
After Yang can certainly be read as a metaphor for the ways people can become emotionally attached to and dependent on technology they don’t really understand. Not understanding all the inner workings of the hard drives where we keep our family photos, or the phones that hold our calendars and contacts, makes it feel even more like a grave betrayal when one of those devices fails, taking irreplaceable parts of our lives with it. Early on, Jake and Kyra’s exasperation over Yang’s malfunction exactly mimics the frustration most people feel when a useful device breaks, replacing its usual convenience with cost and frustration.
But Kogonada’s film never feels like it’s pursuing such an impersonal agenda. It feels much more like an elegy, tracking the characters through their mourning after a family member dies. The fact that Yang is an artificial person who could potentially be repaired or rebooted is beside the point, and so is the fact that Jake gains access to Yang’s memory files and starts to discover more about him after he’s in the repair shop. While the story trappings here are different than they are in similarly internal arthouse films like Three Colors: Blue or Ponette, the exploration of grief, the navigation in the aftermath of loss, and the consideration of mortality feel just as solemn and subdued.
After Yang takes place in a very loosely sketched future. The audience can assume a few things about this world, where even a family that’s struggling financially can afford to live in a gracefully appointed, elegant Japanese-style home, and the guy next door (Westworld’s Clifton Collins Jr.) lives with a family of clones. The few details on offer do tend to leave odd gaps: When a museum curator (The Green Knight’s Sarita Choudhury) tells Jake she’s spent her entire career trying to understand “technosapiens” like Yang, it becomes clear that we know very little about where these AIs came from, or why they’re such a mystery. The revelation that Jake is prejudiced against clones raises questions about both him and them. This is a true slice-of-life story, unconcerned with any aspect of the characters or their lives that fall outside the chosen slice.
But what the setting lacks in world-building and character-building details, it makes up for in aesthetics. The futuristic touches are subtle, but always elegant: Cars have soft little moss-and-fern gardens growing in them for a more organic feel, technology is integrated unobtrusively into ordinary objects. Everything in this world is beautiful, built around a unified tasteful, restrained design that makes it a little abstracted and unreal. At the same time, it’s soothing and mournful, a perfect match for the restless but resigned emotions at play throughout the story. The tone matches the mood — apart from a wonderfully energetic dance competition toward the beginning of the film, which conceptually unites the movie’s core family with the otherwise-unseen families of the movie’s other primary characters, the film mostly operates with a library-worthy hush. The characters rarely speak above a low, confidential murmur. A great deal goes unsaid, and is left for the audience to intuit.
Like so many science fiction stories, After Yang doesn’t have answers to its rhetorical questions about the nature of humanity. It suggests, in the most delicate and glancing of ways, that understanding Yang’s connection to Mika helps Jake strengthen his own bond with her. It similarly suggests that Yang was more than his family realized, and that their loss is greater than they fathomed. It gets at an idea that’s often hard to communicate on film — that everyone contains a vast hidden world, and that every death is a vast loss. The film doesn’t make much distinction between Yang and his human family, apart from letting them into his hidden world after he’s gone. It focuses on their memories of him and his memories of them and others, swirling around the themes of perception and willful blindness without forcing any strong conclusions.
And in talking about grief, Kogonada keeps After Yang’s focus on the sensation of sitting with the inevitable, and slowly learning from it. His film’s refusal to externalize death as some easy-to-grasp evil that can be battled and defeated may leave some sci-fi fans untethered and unsatisfied. After Yang is intensely internal and personal, as grief so often is, which guarantees it won’t connect with a wide audience. But as a collection of images and moods, all gently nudging at that central question of what defines a person, it’s gravely hypnotic. It’s an old question, asked in a new way, with deepest gravity and respect.
After Yang is in theaters and streaming on Showtime on March 4.