We’ve all surely thought about it from time to time: What would happen if we lost the technological tools that are now such an ingrained part of our everyday lives? How would we survive and work without the internet? What happens when we lose our smartphone? Can we live in a house where we have to turn lights on and off or adjust the thermostat instead of having Alexa do it?
After Yang, the second full-length movie from director Kogonada (after his acclaimed 2017 feature debut, the John Cho-starring Columbus) addresses these questions in far more emotional and existential terms. Set in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed city, with hints of some kind of past catastrophe in the background, the story follows a man named Jake (Colin Farrell) as he desperately attempts to get his little daughter’s android companion, Yang (Justin H. Min), repaired after Yang malfunctions and shuts down.
But the robot is more than just a glorified (and refurbished) toy to little Mika (played by Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja in a heartbreaking feature debut). Purchased as a sort of nanny, big brother and cultural touchstone for the adopted Mika to connect with her Chinese roots, Yang has become an integral part of the family’s lives as well, including Jake’s busy, career-focused wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith).
As Jake begins to realize Yang may be the glue holding his family together, and thereby just how incalculable his loss could be, he also discovers that Yang seemingly harbored an inner life and memories of his own. That turns After Yang into a different kind of story altogether: a meditation on grief, the passage of time, and the delicate preservation of our very existence in the fragile webs of memory.
“Meditation” may be a suitable word to use in conjunction with the film, which is based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Wang” by Alexander Weinstein. There are long moments of stillness and silence from both the story and the actors, sometimes labored ones, which make us start to wonder if this is all supposed to be some sort of indie film parody. While it’s not, it’s also science fiction at its most quiet, with any intimations about the time and place–self-driving cars, advanced robotics, and so forth–woven so subtly into the background that they feel like they’ve always been there
After Yang may actually be too suggestive sometimes, depriving us of some sort of context for this world and the events taking place in it. It feels curiously empty for one thing; is that the result of some kind of global cataclysm, even if the homes and surrounding locales seem relatively untouched? What are the ramifications of “owning” a highly advanced, extraordinarily self-aware cyborg that seems more like a living being?
That these questions remain unanswered is a source of frustration, as are the great performances from all four leads which also seem strangely detached at the same time. A morose Farrell wanders from repair shop to museum, looking for solutions to Yang’s massive glitch before the latter’s body begins to disintegrate. He communicates stiffly with Kyra both via phone and in-person, and it certainly seems for a while that they are drifting apart, a process that Yang’s absence accelerates.
These stretches of the film are involving in terms of solving first Yang’s problem and then decoding his mystery, but they also lack emotional involvement. That comes–in hanky-grabbing abundance–in the third act, when the secret recordings stored in Yang’s core (in other words, his “heart”) are unlocked (represented quite beautifully as a vast explosion of star-like lights, each one carrying a single memory).
Even then, questions linger about just who or what Yang is, how existence is defined and whether anyone has a “soul,” but by that point Kogonada (who also wrote the screenplay) carries you along in a rush of emotion that almost makes up for the sterility encountered earlier. After Yang is both unsatisfying and cathartic at the same time, providing a poignant payoff to a story that leaves the viewer reaching out for more understanding.
After Yang opens in select theaters on Friday, March 4 and on Showtime.