Sundance Review: “After Yang”

After Yang” doesn’t look or feel the way most science fiction films do when we think about the hallmarks of that genre. Its environments are warm and organic, not sleek and cold. Visible futuristic technology is replaced by natural touches like plants, and the film’s main character, Jake (Colin Farrell) runs a tea shop. And it’s not a tea shop that specializes in the way the beverage is consumed in this world (one customer comes in looking for tea crystals); Jake revels in the calm and precise preparation that comes with using tea leaves.

All of those elements aren’t things we’d expect to find from most sci-fi films, but it’s no surprise to see them in a sci-fi film by Kogonada, whose lovely 2017 drama “Columbus” quietly builds the plight of characters who feel held back by family as they try to make a new future for themselves against the backdrop of a small Midwestern town that has a surprising amount of modernist architecture. “After Yang” is similarly a film that takes its time, but while it is bolder and more ambitious than Kogonada’s previous work in many ways, it remains grounded in its probing of such very relatable human topics as identity, memory, what it means to exist and what it means to live.

Kogonada’s screenplay is adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” Yang (Justin H. Min) is a technobeing, a human-like robot purchased by Jake and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to help teach Asian culture to their Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). One morning, Yang doesn’t turn on, to the frustration of Mika, who loves him like a brother. Jake promises to get him fixed (he’s still under warranty), but the routine task of going around to electronics shops to essentially get an appliance fixed turns into an existential experience for Jake, as his dive into Yang’s recorded memories allows him to experience moments with his family that he missed, and come to know Yang not as a device, but as a member of his family.

Colin Farrell as Jake in “After Yang”

The world of “After Yang” feels homey and lived-in, even though Kogonada is more preoccupied with characters than world-building. The state of this future world lingers at the corners of every frame; the abundance of nature indoors, including the tree that has taken root at the center of the family’s home, hints at a climate crisis that perhaps has made the outside world somewhat inhospitable, and there’s a theory that corporations are using spyware in their androids (this detail, while potentially intriguing, ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere). The prevalence of technology isn’t obvious, but the family’s reliance on it is. Initially, it seems like they only connect through devices. For instance, in the delightful opening credits sequence—which contains an abundance of energy that the rest of the film lacks—families gather around a video camera to compete in a dance contest. Later, Jake replays segments of Yang’s memories over and over. He watches him with Mika, and with Kyra, and with a mysterious woman (Haley Lu Richardson) Jake tries to identify, but he himself really only shares one pivotal moment with Yang, as the two come as close as they ever will to bonding over tea—a beverage that’s a pivotal part of Chinese culture, yet Yang can’t consume it, can’t taste it.

Yang’s identity is one of many questions that Kogonada poses, not necessarily so he can provide a concrete answer, but so that the audience is prompted to mull it over. Yang is a manufactured being, so is he truly Asian? Sure there was a reason he was made to be Asian? And as an Asian, is there more he can offer Mika than history lessons? And then there are questions of how we remember. Is memory experienced differently when we have it recorded to relive over and over, versus allowing an event to exist only in our minds, potentially changing over time along with our ability to recollect it?

Tjandrawidjaja is effortlessly sweet as Mika, providing that first spark of human connection we see between the family and Yang when, in the first scene of the movie, she beckons to him to join them for a family photo. Min is off-screen more often than he is on, but when he is, he exudes an appropriately calm and curious demeanor. Turner-Smith is the family’s strength and the film’s voice of reason, telling Jake that maybe they need to give up on trying to fix Yang; maybe they’ve been too reliant on him. She seems more invested in making real-life connections than Jake, who Farrell plays as understated and distant (perhaps too distant). Alexandra Schaller’s production design and Arjun Bhasin’s costumes work in tandem to help create this world, while the music (score by Aska Matsumiya with an original theme by the legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto) is nothing short of gorgeous and helps the audience tap into these characters’ feelings and the sentimentality of their memories.

The slow pace and low-key narrative may make “After Yang” a frustrating watch for some, but for those drawn to engage with it, it proves to be a film that is constantly in conversation with its influences, with its director, and with the audience. Its questions of the meaning of life and the nature of humanity may have been asked many times over, but the way Kogonada presents them makes for a rewarding, life-enriching experience.

“After Yang” will be released by A24 in March. Runtime: 101 minutes. Find more information about the Sundance Film Festival here.

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