Kogonada’s latest release After Yang is an emotional film about the bonds we call family. The movie emanates the warmth and tenderness of having people to share your life with. But there’s also a sense of melancholy in the film, the premise of which is on the death of the titular character Yang.
Release Date: March 4, 2020 (Theatrical and Showtime)
I’ll start out with the film’s concept. After Yang is based off a short story titled “Saying Goodbye to Yang“, from the collection Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. I vaguely remember reading this short story in one of my high school Lit classes, so watching this film felt like weird déjà vu. Rereading the short (after watching the film) revealed a lot about what Kogonada must have cherished about the original story, and the things that he changed to fit his vision.
The film follows a family in a not-so-distant future, where technology has advanced to cloning one’s children and the creation of ‘techno-sapiens’. Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) raise their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) with the help of Yang (Justin H. Min). Yang is a techno-sapien purchased to help connect Mika with her Chinese heritage. One night Yang malfunctions during a vivid family dance competition. Jake rushes to get him fixed, leading him on a journey into Yang’s memories. Eventually Jake, Kyra, and Mika decide to let Yang go.
The film doesn’t entirely follow the original plot of the short story. Kogonada adds some subplots relating to the larger world of techno-sapiens and cloning, specifically with the museum story arc and the introduction of the character Ada (Haley Lu Richardson). Ada’s character is pivotal to the entire film as she bridges the gap between the human and the machine. She was human in Yang’s first life, and was his first love. Her untimely passing led to her being cloned and reappearing in Yang’s latest life. A lot of what we (and Jake) know about Ada is shown through Yang’s memory bank, which Jake dedicates nights to watching.
What really makes Yang’s story so human is which memories he treasures enough to record. Snippets of light beams in a hallway, a quiet moment of Kyra reading outside, Ada singing along at a concert. These moments fill years of memory that Jake takes upon himself to unravel. In his desperate search to bring Yang back into his family Jake realizes what it really means to be human, to feel, to be alive. And yes, even though Yang is a robot, his memories prove that he still treasures life the same way that is inherent to humanity. He is dedicated to his sister and their shared culture, and spends his time being a brother. Even in his death Yang is still able to bring together his family.
Kogonada amazes me in After Yang. His writing and direction translate beautifully onto the screen. Each individual piece works: the frame changes when the characters communicate over video; the clothes reveal which of Yang’s lives the shot is from. Every element of the production design works to tell us what we need to know without saying a lot. The design of the house, cars, and the wardrobe hint at an anachronistic setting that blends what life might look like now with what Kogonada hopes to see in the future. Rather than a cold and grey environment that is often associated with the rise of technology, After Yang is filled with warm lighting and an abundance of plant life. The film could take place in a century or even as little as 10 years based on the design of the film. A film like this can remain relevant for a long time because it’s not tied down to a specific time or location.
Even though there is a lot of ambiguity in After Yang‘s setting, the social aspects of the film are more specific. In “Saying Goodbye to Yang” there is mention of an earthquake that devastates China, which is how Mika joins the family. This isn’t mentioned in After Yang, and neither is the made-up invasion of North Korea. Both the short story and the film directly show how anti-Asian sentiments can surface and how some characters might even embody some of them. In Russ’s workshop there are patriotic messages strewn about, including one that says “Ain’t no yellow in the red white and blue”. Russ depicts the type of patriotism seen in America in response to a distrust of anyone else, furthered by his insistence that Yang’s memory box is a piece of spyware.
Jake and Kyra, who adopt a Chinese baby, buy Yang to help connect her to her Chinese culture. In actuality, Yang does more then this and becomes her beloved big brother. But Jake struggles to really see Yang as a son, and it’s only once he’s gone that Jake is able to reconcile with the gaps in his family and how he may have played a part in them. The need for “culture-technos” like Yang, who seem to be used to raise children, seems altruistic at first glance but crumbles apart the more one looks at it. Using technology might just be a band-aid for the larger intersections of natural disaster, adoption, and race. That’s not to say that Yang doesn’t give Mika the support she needs from an older brother. Aside from his Chinese “fun facts” Yang teaches her language and customs that Jake and Kyra are not familiar with, while taking care of her while they both work full time. Mika and Yang truly love each other, and Yang is irreplaceable to her.
Kogonada’s debut film, Columbus (which also starred Haley Lu Richardson) showcased his attention and love of spaces and aesthetics. He uses the elements of the film to show how architecture and the places we live can impact our lives. After Yang expands on this to create a world that could one day mirror our own, where memory itself is a place to look at and explore. Most of all, After Yang shows us how important the idea of family is and how to reconcile with loss to strengthen the bonds that bring us together.