When After Yang was making its way through the festival circuit, much was made about the early, multi-family dance sequence that doubles as an opening credits and an introduction to the wider cast. It’s understandable. The scene is a smile-inducing jolt of energy in an otherwise patient, plaintive film. There is, however, a crucial moment that comes at its conclusion that is not talked about as much as the glorious, po-faced gyrating. When the Fleming family are kicked out of this bizarre, Dance Dance Revolution style-game, they all first assume it must have been one of the human members who made the misstep which eliminated them. Only after exhausting all options do they realise it was Yang(Justin H. Min), their cyborg child and companion, who was short-circuiting and unable to continue.
The moment in question is not just the inciting incident–much of the film is then dedicated to trying to ensure Yang’s survival–but also serves as a succinct summation of a central theme. Jake Fleming (Colin Farrell), along with his wife and child, initially don’t see it as a possibility that the assiduous, robotic Yang could ever be malfunctioning on the inside. After Yang then asks us, emphatically, to consider the interior lives of not just other people but anything with self-awareness. Koganada’s beautiful second feature, which aches with the loss of a first love in every carefully crafted frame, is a perfect endorsement of that overused Roger Ebert quote that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy”.
Like his debut, the feather-light romance Colombus, this is another spellbinding, sentimental drama that offers up a deftly heightened version of our reality. Whereas his first effort seemed to make time itself stand still for its leads, who slowly build an intense connection through a mutual love of architecture, After Yang presents us with a pristinely-realised near-future. Kogonada eschews a world dominated by bleeding-edge gizmos and sleek, omnipresent machinery. With the obvious exception of the titular character, this is a universe where new technology is not obtrusive but inconspicuous. The Fleming home is one of peaceful solitude as opposed to one beset by the buzzing alerts of social media notifications.
It’s a refreshingly modest take on a not implausible future. Films with this subject matter and setting usually offer us emotionally inert dystopias of glossy, sterile environments, but After Yang is full of warmly-lit pastels and exquisite compositions of characters surrounded by inviting decor. Emotions are, for the most part, openly expressed in a healthy manner. We should know early on how much Kogonada wants us to sink into his leisurely world when we find out Farrell’s character owns a tea shop. All of this suits a story concerned with the kind of metaphysics that makes you misty-eyed.
This is not to say this is some undeniable utopia. Ethical questions are certainly raised by the idea of buying and selling androids for the purpose of adoption. Yang’s bonding with the infant child (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) certainly makes us the most uncomfortable, given the apparent shelf-life of these robots. The corporate behemoth which manufactures the likes of Yang are all too eager to reuse him for parts when he begins shutting down. Not unlike many tech companies today, they don’t wrestle with the ramifications resulting from what they have created. The diverse cast also isn’t as comforting as it first appears and might actually suggest a more united humanity has found a new ‘other’ in the form of clones and robots.
All that being said, Kogonada does not present us with the kind of cruel exploitation we see in something like Steven Spielberg‘s AI Artificial Intelligence. The Flemings are much more considerate to Yang’s feelings than the Swintons were in the 2001 film. Colin Farrell’s Jake is determined to do anything to keep Yang alive, while Jodie Turner Smith’s Kyra believes delaying the inevitable is only harming their child Mika’s development. Both positions come from a place of care and neither are ‘wrong’. Still, even if these are inherently good people, we can’t escape the nagging sense, at least early on, that they regard Yang as a sort of intelligent pet.
Koganda then asks us, in no uncertain terms, to face up to the reality that anything which has self-awareness deserves our empathy. After an off-the-books repairman provides Jake with access to Yang’s memories, Jake is, via some unostentatious virtual-reality goggles, able to literally see the world through the eyes of another. As visual metaphors go, it’s hardly subtle but the director gets away with it. The sequences of Yang’s past are a visual and aural treat, and also invite us to consider how many ‘bread crumbs’ to ourselves we all leave in the age of Instagram and TikTok.
More importantly though, these scenes are there to teach Jake and us that Yang’s selfhood is not merely defined by the family he lived with. Without giving too much away, it’s revealed that the sum total of his existence is far richer than Jake first assumed. It should be noted that Farrell pitches this all perfectly. In a year in which he’s given us showy, well-received performances like larger-than-life comic book villains or a heroic cave diver, his restrained work here might be his best. It’s possibly the most decent character Farrell has yet played, and his doleful eyes coupled with a composure always on the brink of cracking ensures Jake’s journey is a moving one of emotional growth. Look out for a clever time-lapse transition in a dark forest which suggests his character’s commitment to revisiting the site of Yang’s initial experiences.
Watching After Yang reminded me of that recent story of the Google engineer who believed a chatbot had reached sentience. Most experts agreed he made a deeply misguided conclusion but the incident does bring into question the idea that there will be some mass consensus when that point is reached. If a sentient artificial intelligence does emerge, will it be an objective truth easily agreed upon all? Kogonada is perhaps suggesting the only way to truly know is to take a walk in their shoes.
I would argue that the filmmaker isn’t actually too preoccupied with ‘what it means to be human’. At one point, Jake asks a clone and close friend of Yang’s if his adopted robot son ever felt inadequate due to the fact he wasn’t one of them. She replies dismissively that the question is “such a human thing to ask”. Kogonada is much more concerned with what it means to be alive.