This review contains spoilers
Following his quiet and subtly beautiful debut “Columbus” in 2017, expectations for writer and director Kogonada’s next project were extremely high. But going from a subdued romance set in a small Midwestern town to a sci-fi drama about a family’s robot breaking down would be a daunting task for any director. Luckily, Kogonada deftly handles this weighty task in “After Yang” while retaining the detail and quiet beauty that made his directorial debut so appealing.
“After Yang” premiered on Showtime on March 4 as a part of Showtime and A24’s streaming partnership. The film follows father Jake (Colin Farrell) and mother Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) as they attempt to fix their suddenly broken android son Yang (Justin H. Min), whom they purchased for their young, adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).
While Yang was initially purchased for the purpose of teaching Mika more about her Chinese heritage, as the film progresses, we learn that Yang’s relationship with each member of the family, and even with individuals outside of the family, has grown in such a way that he truly surpassed his original purpose.
Kogonada uses Yang’s character to explore the idea of what it means to be human, something that’s been explored time and time again in the sci-fi genre. It’s Kogonada’s unique tenderness and subtlety that allows “After Yang” to elevate itself above what could be considered a genre cliché and to provide the audience with a genuinely moving and touching experience.
The initial plan is to try to repair Yang as Mika becomes quite distraught following his sudden malfunctioning. Jake attempts to track down the shop where they originally purchased Yang, who was a refurbished model, only to discover they’ve since closed down. Jake takes Yang to Yang's original manufacturer, a large tech corporation known as Brothers & Sisters Inc., but they inform Jake that there is damage to Yang’s core and they would be unable to repair him.
Farrell brings a quiet determination to Jake, allowing him to take each rejection as motivation to find someone who can repair Yang. Turner-Smith imbues Kyra with a sense of self-assuredness that manifests in her being an emotional rock for the family. The two share surprisingly few scenes together, but each one is extraordinarily vital and phenomenally acted, demonstrating the subtle dynamics present within family life.
After going to a repairman that Jake’s neighbor recommended to him, we learn that Yang has secretly been recording select moments of the family illegally at the behest of Brothers & Sisters Inc. We later learn that the moments selected were determined by Yang in an attempt to better understand what an android might deem as memorable. These moments of Jake going to different repair shops and eventually a “technosapien” museum allow Kogonada to explore issues of surveillance and lack of privacy and the role Big Tech plays in those issues.
It’s through these memories that we see how Yang interacts with each family member individually. These memories also reveal that Yang has developed a romantic relationship with a girl named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), with whom Yang has seemingly had an entire life outside of his time spent with the family. It’s here that we see the line between robot and human begin to blur, with Yang evolving into something far closer to a human than a robot.
Kogonada brilliantly interweaves these memories into the film, shifting between different aspect ratios and visual styles; the family’s home is still and static whereas the memories are handheld and sporadic. Glints of directors Jonas Mekas and Terrence Malick come through in these moments, which seem almost antithetical to Kogonada’s presented directorial style up until this point.
The film also retains familiarity to “Columbus” in the production design, but utilizes more East Asian design styles. It seems that Kogonada is taking the typical East Asian design influences utilized in sci-fi films like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix” and reclaiming them, shifting from orientalism to something far more respectful and grounded.
With “After Yang,” Kogonada takes what made “Columbus” such a renowned success and builds on it. The only negative takeaway from the film is that Kogonada is too ambitious at times, attempting to take on much more than he is capable of within a 90-minute time frame. Of course, it’s the ambitiousness of “After Yang” that makes it such an exciting watch and cements Kogonada as a writer-director to keep an eye on.
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John Scott is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @JScott050901