After Yang was one of the most anticipated films to arrive at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and that’s because we have the second feature from writer/director Kogonada. Those who recognize his name must’ve remembered his debut film, Columbus, which also premiered at Sundance five years ago. I always heard nothing but great things about it, but I still haven’t seen it. It is a shame since they shot it here in Indiana. Though his latest from A24 made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer, it’s going to gain more attention now for those who got the chance to watch the best kind of sci-fi drama that’ll have you explore your mind.
What’s the Story: In the near future, Jake (Colin Farrell) and Krya (Jodi Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) live at home with their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Yang, a human-like android they purchased to be the perfect companion for Mika to learn more about her Chinese heritage. Suddenly, Yang malfunctions and shuts down after their family dance competition (most extraordinary opening title sequences of the year?), making Jake want to repair him quickly and cheaply as possible. During this time, the family’s despair has Jake discovering there’s more to him than a typical technosapien.
Just from reading the synopsis, my reaction could go anywhere in how it will treat it, and this would be my first experience with anything from the mind of Kogonada. My first thought was thinking we have an original film when in reality, it’s based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein. Kogonada seemed to love this so much he wanted to make this adaptation something of his own. And honestly speaking, I have a strong feeling this will stick with me over time since it’s films like After Yang that help viewers question our own existence. You wouldn’t know it takes place in the future, and I love how it keeps this world grounded without leaning into the qualities one thinks of all-around its quiet atmosphere that has you feeling like you’re part of a dream, except for the experience of a future with self-driving cars and advanced facetime technology.
When we learn that Yang is an integral part of this family, he appears more like their son or older brother than just a robot—just replacing him won’t be any good for them since it’ll be too soon and doesn’t sound like it the right mood. For him being in this condition is enough to be worrying, especially at Mika’s age. As it shows us what goes on in Yang’s memories through these VR glasses to access them with aspect ratio changes, we’re able to explore him, seeing his perspective of being like one of us, the humanity in all of us in we own an artificial intelligence and being affected by them.
Colin Farrell gives his most subtle performance in quite some time. Since he’s the one responsible for carrying the weight of the film, maybe it’s the point where his character is presented to be a little emotionally distant from his family. This won’t be the role that will get his first Oscar nomination, but he continues to show why he’s still one of the best actors out there. Jodi Turner-Smith was good as his wife, though I wished she had more to do when her character often spends more time at work. I think a performance that will go overlooked that shouldn’t be comes from Justin H. Min of The Umbrella Academy fame as the titular Yang. It’s another performance here that’s delivered subtly, and while he isn’t human and shown more through flashbacks, he’s rooted in a compelling mystery when he interacts with each member of the family, more importantly with Mika since she was an infant. Something under his skin is more than Chinese fun facts, as he ponders if he’s really Chinese and less than an android. The rest of the supporting cast, from Emma Tjandrawidjaja as Mika, Sarita Choudhury, and Haley Lu Richardson (who was in Columbus)
Above and beyond everything else, it hits what it means for those grieving and all that is tied to us. Today, we have become more reliant on technology than we were 20 years ago, whether it’s our phones or computers. How it handles how death and how it affects us profoundly always finds a way in getting deeper any time a film of this nature tells it how it is. In life, we expect the loss of someone or something practically every day, and the pain is worse for what brings us together or makes us happy. So Kogonada lays it down slowly to unravel what it means to be human and the attachment one goes through. The pacing isn’t the strongest at times, knowing it goes fit a slow burn, but it trusts you to require your attention.
After Yang has writer/director Kogonada make his own Ex Machina or A.I. Artificial Intelligence to craft a compelling sci-fi drama about examining human life and loss. A bit of a slow burn, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. I have a feeling this will hit differently for many. Maybe it’s too early to tell if this will be the best offering from A24 this year, but it has taken the lead so far.