Kogonada’s sci-fi-tinged family drama confirms its writer/director as one of cinema’s most vital new voices.
If Kogonada’s debut feature Columbus navigated the fertile ground of how people relate to places, his follow-up moves onto the slightly more ambitious question of how we relate to the world at large. What shapes our understanding of life, family, society and our place within it? How is a memory formed? What does the brain choose to archive and forget?
Adapted from the short story ‘Saying Goodbye to Yang’ about a family in the nearish future paying a long farewell to their robot companion, After Yang is an expansive yet intimate portrait of grief and identity, and cements its writer/director as one of the most exciting new voices in cinema.
Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner Smith), Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Yang (Justin H Min) are a family. They live in a serene suburban house with lush greenery and plenty of natural light. They take part in regular online dance-off competitions. It just so happens that Yang is a “big brother” techno-sapien, purchased when Jake and Kyra adopted Mika from China, in order to help their daughter forge and maintain a relationship to her homeland and culture.
At the start of the film, Yang suffers a serious malfunction, and the family are devastated by their loss. Jake attempts to find a way to repair him and inadvertently begins to piece together elements of Yang’s life to which they were previously oblivious. Through accessing the robot’s memories, Jake begins a process of mourning and discovery that extends to everyone who knew Yang.
This high concept sci-fi could easily feel dystopian or sterile, but Kogonada’s gentle touch and aesthetic sensibilities avoid this. After Yang envisions a softer techno future, plush with trees and grass and sunlight, where cloning and androids are a part of everyday life but the natural world is still embraced. There’s a deep sense of serenity and melancholy about this world, in which technology has made life easy in many ways, but also created rifts. Jake and Kyra work hard, and worry if they’ve been too absent as parents; if Mika has come to rely on Yang too much.
The richness of Kogonada’s cinematography and production design is matched by his thematic ambition. Although some of the dialogue feels a little stilted, there are moments that feel exceptionally poignant such as Mika singing to her father and Yang discussing with Jake what it means to be Asian. The repetition of lines and images throughout drives home a sense of memory’s slippery nature; what might be fact today could be fiction tomorrow in the mind’s eye.
For all its pondering, however, it should also be said After Yang is funny, too. The opening credits sequence is a burst of whimsy, and Farrell’s Werner Herzog impression while he tells Yang about Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht’s All in This Tea manages to be charming and significant in one breath. It’s a family portrait captured with tenderness and skill. There are shades of Terrence Malick in Kogonada’s reverence for the natural world, but he manages to create something that is completely his own, brimming with intricate detail and delicate soul.
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Published 9 Jul 2021
Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her 2019 masterpiece is an immaculate study of grief and filmmaking.
This absorbing debut feature from video essayist Kogonada explores the relationship between people and spaces.