Kogonada‘s latest is a stately tea ceremony of a film that imagines an artfully designed future many would love to inhabit and others would find enervating. After Yang uses a dreamy and empathetic strain of science fiction to explore the idea that its extremely human-seeming android has a greater appreciation for the life it has been given than its owners and creators do of their own. This is not an especially original insight but it is at least thoughtfully and beautifully rendered. At one point, Jake (Colin Farrell) wonders whether his family’s android Yang (Justin H. Min) was jealous of not having a similar range of emotions to people. “That’s such a human thing to say,” says Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who may have been in love with Yang, with just a slight tone of contempt for his lack of understanding.
The line is notable not just for its insight—puncturing an unthinking anthropocentric arrogance being standard to much science fiction—but the cut of its anger. Like 2017’s Columbus, writer-director Kogonada’s last feature, After Yang is expansive and warmly evocative of a very specific kind of urbane modernist space (minimal interiors, window walls, plenty of greenery), with everything placed just so. Though set in a vague far future that has apparently seen substantial conflict—a glimpsed bulletin board contains clippings about a US-China naval battle in the Pacific and an announcement that “After 60 Years the War Finally Draws to an End”—there is barely a raised voice in this bourgeois cinematic design gallery. Ada’s expression of distaste is one of the few sharp emotions cutting through the tranquil lull of Koganada’s murmuring dialogue and Benjamin Loeb’s lusciously grained Instamatic cinematography.
It is not hard to see why people might fall in love with Yang, or why Jake would be surprised that a thing he thought was his possession had another life. Bought by Jake and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to be a sort of Chinese heritage-affirming companion for their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), Yang became more of a beloved older brother guardian figure. Early in the film, Yang has malfunctioned. Jake is doing his best to get him fixed while Mika wails and pouts. In what we see of Yang prior to his breakdown, he seems a kind, watchful, and considerate personality whose patience and agreeability registers somehow as friendliness more than servility—which makes sense, given that a company selling to well-off families would likely be more successful programming android servants who did not seem like servants.
For Jake, Yang appears to have been not so much a servant as a gadget. The way he puts Yang’s slack body over his shoulder like a bag of laundry and carries him from one repair shop to another suggests not exactly cruelty but a degree of carelessness that is hard to take when seeing Yang’s gentle demeanor in flashbacks as he talks with Mika or, at Jake’s urging, joins to be photographed like he was just another family member. But even Jake—a preoccupied and distant father and husband who only seems content when fussing with the various teas he sells at his shop—is taken aback by the way well-meaning people keep reminding him that Yang will “start decomposing” soon, or talk of warranties or getting money back if they “recycle” him as though he were nothing more than an older-model smartphone.
The quest to repair Yang drags on, with Jake’s indecisiveness and bickering with Kyra about what to do starting to seem more like unacknowledged grief over the loss of a family member. He wends from a chain repair shop that’s all empty smiles and corporate-limited offerings (a reminder that even in the future, some things don’t change) to a sketchy grey market operation run by a paranoiac (Ritchie Coster) ranting about privacy and spyware, to a museum with exhibitions dedicated to androids, or “technosapiens”.
At the museum, an almost too-excited researcher (Sarita Choudhury) reveals to Jake that Yang will not “turn back on” and that he was a rare discontinued model with an unusual feature: His memory recorded a few seconds of eyesight video from each day as part of a research project to see what androids found worth saving. Deciding to donate Yang’s body to the museum, Jake takes a copy of his memory home and begins sifting through it. Soon, he discovers what appears to be a whole shadow life he never knew existed behind Yang’s contemplative face.
Much of After Yang is taken up by Jake’s initially solemn then increasingly emotional quest through Yang’s past. There is little direct narrative momentum once the family has accepted the idea that Yang is not coming back to them. Jake’s playing and replaying of different snapshots from Yang’s memory serve as a kind of grieving process. The way Koganada shoots those moments—threading together two very slightly distinct takes of the same scene—suggests that we are seeing the memories from both Yang’s perspective and that of the person he is talking to.
It’s a neat trick but like much of After Yang, it does not ultimately lead to much. There is a melancholic mystery to some of Yang’s memories, like his apparent secret romance with Ada, the suggestion that he had been “recycled” many times before, and his earnest explorations of what being “alive” truly meant. But too often the film loops back on itself in a manner that may leave the viewer contemplating not the story’s metaphysical implications but the austere yet somehow comforting production design.
Kogonada’s envisioning of this future is richly imaginative and without the need to explain every little detail. Some moments need no explanation, like the astounding credits sequence, which shows a series of families (at least one of whom from each turns out later to be a character) in matching uniforms dancing energetically to a frantic beat while a disembodied voice announces what sounds like updates to a somewhat creepy mass online contest they are all taking part in: “3,000 families eliminated … stamina round”. Others could use a little backstory, such as why even though the setting seems to be in America, most everybody dresses and acts as though living in a Japanese theme park.
After Yang ends up being an unanswered question. Most of what Jake learns from searching through Yang’s past is that “his” android might not have been fully conscious but was far from an unthinking machine meant to give Mika “fun facts” about China. The film never delves into issues of sentience, liberty, and slavery. But it reveals a Yang sentient enough that all the earlier talk about “recycling” leaves you just uncomfortable enough to make the film worthwhile.