'After Yang': Kogonada’s sophomore is a visual feast, but missing heart
After Yang, released in theaters in early March, is writer-director Kogonada’s sophomore feature. Much like his 2017 debut Columbus, Kogonada once again shows off his love for 20th century modernist architecture and minimalist cinematography; his characters quietly roam around in an eerily symmetrical reality–beautiful, but curated and distant. Unlike his debut, however, After Yang is set in the future with self-driving cars, crystal-clear FaceTimes, and most notably, humanoid robots, dubbed “techno-sapiens.” Yang, played by Justin H. Min, is one of these techno-sapiens, purchased by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to help their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) better connect with her cultural roots. When Yang becomes suddenly unresponsive one morning, Jake embarks on a journey to fix his family android that takes an unexpected turn when he discovers a memory bank inside his chest.
Upon initially viewing the trailer, I expected the film to focus on machine consciousness– something along the lines of Ex Machina (2014). However, after watching the first 10 minutes of the film, it became obvious that Kogonada was taking a drastically different approach to AI than Ex Machina director Alex Garland. Rather than interrogate the validity of androids’ assimilation into human culture, Kogonada embraces the idea with open arms: Mika accepts Yang as part of her family and lovingly refers to him as 哥哥 (gē ge), or “older brother.” The film delivers a gentle look at a future with AI—a tone reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her—rather than a doomsday-esque warning about the destruction of humanity by robots. Through this new perspective, the story is able to explore further than merely what it means to be human. It is a meditation on adoptee relations, cultural belongingness, and loss—all through the tender lens of Yang’s unlocked memories. Kogonada challenges the foundational assumption of AI: the idea that all non-human things desire to be human in the first place. In a conversation with Jake, Ada (Haley Lu Richardson) scoffs at this very premise and asks: “What’s so great about being human?”
The cast, for the most part, is very strong. Justin H. Min is undeniably the star of this film. He perfects a delicate balance in his performance of the android Yang–not quite human, but soft and endearing in a way that transcends his robotic veneer. Colin Farrell too delivers in his subtle but convincing performance as Jake. Having grown accustomed to seeing Farrell in somewhat intense roles in the past (The Beguiled (2017), and more recently, this year’s The Batman), it is a welcome change of pace to see him embrace such a quiet, introspective character. Unfortunately, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, who plays Mika, is the weakest of the cast. Whether it is a lackluster script from Kogonada—perhaps he is not adept at writing for child actors—or wooden line deliveries by Tjandrawidjaja, the character feels mildly robotic. And because Mika is at the core of some of the movie’s most emotional scenes, those moments fall flat. Nonetheless, it is difficult to criticize child actors because they are, after all, children.
Beyond Min’s stunning performance, seeing him appear on the big screen feels like a personal triumph as an Asian American film lover. I remember watching him act in the YouTube shorts created by Wong Fu Productions years ago, and witnessing a talented Asian actor grow from YouTube to Netflix’s Umbrella Academy to A24 makes me incredibly proud. Cultural representation will always be important, and the casual diversity of After Yang is an achievement in itself.
Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography in After Yang is stunning. The film solidifies Kogonada’s distinct directorial style—one that highlights clean lines, neutral tones, and expressive architecture. Jake and Kyra’s home, for example, is a maze of glass and stone. The floor-to-ceiling windows invite greenery into almost every shot, creating an impression of interconnectedness between the natural and the man-made, the organic and the technological. Much of the film’s imagery hinges on this relationship; even the self-driving vehicle pods contain plants in the back seat. The film’s audio also supports this underlying force of nature through the soundscape that permeates the background of scenes: the rustle of a breeze going through leaves, the quiet symphony of bird chirps. In terms of camerawork, many shots place the characters far from the camera, oftentimes through the pane of a window or sliding door. Viewers are looking from the outside in, almost as if through the gaze of a digital screen, or alternately, through the glass of a museum exhibit. Both interpretations give way to a certain degree of distance, a removal from the intimate reality that reflects Jake’s initial emotional gap from his family.
There is no denying that After Yang is beautifully shot, even a technical masterpiece. But though the film introduces several interesting questions about identity, loss, and belongingness, its contemplative nature does not come together in a satisfying way by the end of the story. From a plotline standpoint, the movie is simple, but from a thematic one, it feels too ambitious– stretching itself thin to gain breadth and not achieving enough depth. The film ultimately lacks an innate warmth present in Columbus, and I found it difficult to fall in love with both the characters and story. Though After Yang does not live up to the poignant genius of its predecessor, it is still an exceptional show from Kogonada, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
Sabrina Mei is a freshman in the MSB and is undeclared.