After Yang premiered as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Kogonada’s After Yang is a magic trick of a film. The title refers to a “techno-sapien” sibling (Justin H. Min), an android who serves as a caretaker and mentor for Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the adopted child of Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). While Jake and Kyra are too busy in their working lives, Mika has Yang, and she has grown very attached to him. The film takes place, largely, “after” Yang, in that he malfunctions early on and Jake spends most of the film attempting to get him repaired.
The magic trick comes to fruition roughly 45 minutes in, when Jake is able to watch a series of “memories” Yang stored in a small hard drive chip. They are all-too-brief snapshots of time, seconds-long clips Yang was programmed to produce as an experiment in what an AI would choose to remember if given the chance.
We have seen so little of Yang to this point, yet this montage of memories brings with it a sudden flood of life and feelings. It is a truly miraculous sequence, punctuated sharply be Jake being pulled out of the moment by his daughter — a rapid return to the present which hit my emotional faculties at their core.
Much of the second half of this film works at this highly emotional register. It is, after all, a film about grief, even if that grief involves the loss of a non-organic being. After Yang is a story of loss, in the sense of mourning, but also in the sense of lost connection. It is a story about losing step with those around you, losing the intensity of one’s passions and loves.
Hence the power memory wields. What one remembers most strongly are moments imprinted with emotions, often intense ones. Recalling past moments and coloring them through the lens of the present can be a heartache, or a reminder. Kogonada’s ability to capture these tensions is nothing short of masterful. His humanism permeates throughout this movie, using Yang as an unlikely conduit. Yang yearns for humanity while simultaneously simulating it better than most.
Much is accomplished through the simple device of Yang and his memories. Other characters’ memories, too, factor into this. And Kogonada cleverly captures these in scenes with overlapping action, where lines of dialogue are repeated. The deliveries change, expressing different tones and emotions, reflecting the inability for the human brain to wholly recall any given moment. We may remember what was said in an exchange, but we may also question the small details of our actions, the idiosyncrasies that made the moment tangible and real.
If I have one criticism of After Yang, it is that the film trains most of its focus on Farrell’s Jake. One scene which dedicates time to a memory of Turner-Smith’s Kyra is a welcoming change of pace (and one of the most poignant moments in the film). Her character, for one, could have played a larger role in the story, especially given how much the film is about family and the connections therein.
All the same, Kogonada frames the themes of the film through Jake in an effective manner, using the character as a wanderer through Yang’s history. It is implied that Jake once saw Yang as little more than a machine, something which could teach Mika about the Chinese heritage which she could not otherwise get from her parents (and these “Chinese fun facts,” too, are something he may resent). But Yang is able to provide Jake insights into what it means to be human.
As treacly as that may sound on paper, the film instead meditates on the true weight of the emotions involved with navigating humanity. It takes the tried-and-true sci-fi question of what would happen if programming approached sentience and clothes it in humanism. The result is extraordinary.
After Yang: A
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