Trigger Warning: After Yang contains scenes involving strobing. If you have any kind of light sensitivity, be advised that this pertains to the credit sequence and an intermittent exploratory sequence.
Connection. Connection appears to be a universal need at almost every level of the ecosystem. Amphibians seek it, plants seek it, and humans seek it. We gather in clusters, we pair up and make more of ourselves, and, as culture shifts, the ways in which we raise up our families shift with us. All the while, though, that desire for connection remains. It’s not all that surprising, then, that it would be writer/director Kogonada who would adapt for the silver screen Alexander Weinstein’s short story Saying Goodbye to Yang from the author’s collection of short stories, Children of the New World, after making an impression with his 2017 feature debut release Columbus. That film explored, with gentle deftness, the way in which things around us go unappreciated until too late; that the beauty of creation is too often seen as a tool until something sparks a rearrangement in their mind. Such is the case with Kogonada’s adaptation, now titled After Yang, which balances the visual with the emotional in an exploration of connection as something more than human, something innate to all things flesh or mechanical.
In order to make the acclimation process of adoption easier for their daughter Mika, parents Jake and Kyra (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) purchased a Big Brother technosapien called Yang (Justin H. Min) which could help teach her about her Chinese heritage and help them with her around the house. And Yang did until, one day, he suddenly stopped working. Hoping their extended warranty would cover the issue, Jake journeyed from one place to another, hoping to see a solution that would enable him to bring Yang home to his distraught daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). In the process of trying to fix Yang, Jake uncovered something entirely unexpected, a realization that would alter his perception of his life that there would be no coming back from.
After Yang is, in many ways, a story of grief and reconciliation. Taking place in an unknown period of the future, the audience observes a world that is like ours but different. People still travel by car, but they ride in smart cars that do the driving for them. People still drink tea (Jake’s personal trade), but they can either enjoy it the traditional way (with leaves; Jake’s method) or via tea crystals. Nationwide entertainment isn’t just something you watch, but something you actively participant in (such as a dance competition that makes up the title credit sequence). Humanity continues to thrive, yet does so with the aid of technological marvels like technosapiens (human-appearing machines) and clones. Like our own, this is a world of incredible possibilities, hampered mostly by our myopic view of our lives. So lost do we become in surviving from one moment to the next that we lose our grasp on what matters. Take the writing of this review. As I sit here, at my computer, the score of The Midnight Sky plays, a freshly opened can of Coke is within reach, the taste of peanut M&Ms is on my tongue, there is pressure to complete this review so I can prepare for the next, and I’m missing out on moments with my children: one not quite 14 months and the other over 6.5 years old. Before sitting to write this specific section, I watched my wife, EoM editor Crystal Davidson, balance our youngest, freshly awakened from a nap, in her arms as he leaned backward. I stood in my office doorway watching, trying to take in the moment, knowing that my time with him is fleeting. But what about all the other moments that I missed being too distracted by my phone, by work, by stress? When we’re gone, will the people we leave behind remember all the times we were absent or all the times we were present? When it’s our time to go, will we worry about the deadline we didn’t meet or the smile we’ll never get to see again? The laugh that we’ll never hear? This may seem like a non-sequitur, waxing poetic about my family and my mortality, but it’s right in line with the melancholic After Yang and the questions it raises about ourselves, our lives, and the incorporation of technology.
(Amusingly, I’m now going to take a quick break from writing as my phone has alerted me to a diaper change which requires additional hands to clear. So thank you technology!)
Think of the technology you’re using right now to read this review. It could be your computer, phone, or tablet. How do you feel about it in this moment? Likely not considering it at all. But what happens if it slows down, runs out of storage, or breaks? How might you feel then? Now let’s take it a step further and make it something that you’ve grown accustomed to, that’s gone with you on errands or trips, joined you on daily activities or momentous occasions. Think of the home you grew up in and the day you realized you’d never return or the school whose halls you’d never again wander. How do you feel now? It’s a rite of passage, but one does feel a sense of melancholy about it. This is where Kogonada finds the central emotional anchor of After Yang. At no point does the film use language or insinuate that Yang is more than a technosapien. Instead, at one point, the film itself argues that Yang was content being exactly as he was and the idea of being “more than” is a construct of human pride. So instead of going down the road of a conceived form of humanity, After Yang focuses on exploration of the unknown moments, the unconsidered ideas, and the blindness that comes from the mundane. Not the large moments of celebrations, but the in-between, the small, stolen smiles or glances. Impressively, where the script could condemn the use of technology as a means of lessening the attention one needs to pay on their lives, it instead asks us to consider what we miss by being so distracted *by* our lives.
This notion comes from an opportunity in the film for Yang’s perception of the world to be understood by the central characters. This is one of the aspects where those sensitive to strobing should be cautious, but, with respect to Kogonada, it is a beautifully constructed representation of digital memory. Here, Jake and others can see what Yang saw in brief clips. Think of it in the same way that our digital assistants (Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google) may have mics hot to hear their activation words and swear not to record anything of personal value. It’s at first a surprise to learn of these memories existing, yet their unearthing also provides Jake and Kyra a chance to reconfigure their feelings on Yang. For Mika, Yang represented more than a tool, but an actual member of the family; someone who talked with her, traveled with her, and listened to her concerns. Someone who would do the mundane things with her that meant a great deal. In the exploration of Yang, Jake and Kyra are given a chance to expand their own consciousness and considerations. My favorite thing about the sequences of Yang’s memories is the shift in cinematography as a physical representation of the shift in perspective. When we watch the film proper, there’s a clean look to it, purposefully constructed and lit, Kogonada’s familiar use of physical space and cast direction conveying weight and intention. But in the moments where we see through Yang’s eyes, the veneer of cinema is tossed away for something more natural, capturing people and the environment as we might with our own eyes. It’s easy to see how Jake could encounter a transformation of self in the story as we, like Jake, find ourselves lost in the moments that Yang held dear.
Grief takes all kinds of forms, just like loss. It can be sudden or prepared for. It can be for someone you knew or never met. It can come from someone excising themselves from your life or nature taking course. However it finds you, there’s no wrong way to explore or consider it as you eventually face it. For all the melancholy, After Yang is cathartic, offering a chance to examine your own sense of loss without going through the act of actually losing something or someone. Rather, I found myself thinking of the moments I treasure and considering how often I was present in them. I found myself wondering if the ones in my life understood their value. Most of all, I wondered if they understood the beauty they contributed to my world. Whatever becomes of Yang in the aftermath, just as his family will come to terms with what’s next, so are we, the audience, encouraged to do the same with our own lives. Once more, Kogonada doesn’t just provide a story to experience, but to get lost in and come out with a different perspective.
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
In theaters March 4th, 2022.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.