It’s often said by some that the impact of seeing a movie alone in your home doesn’t come close to seeing it with a crowd; to experience the full communal aspects of sitting in a theater, the varying emotions fluttering around and through that dark setting. It’s a statement I would partially agree with, especially in regards to the communal feel one can often receive when attending a film festival. But in this time of virtual film festivals, one is derived of the cheers and/or boos of the mass crowd, and instead sits alone at home, often feeling a form of freedom to receive whatever movie one is watching at its own pace and volume, unaffected by any surrounding reaction. Such an approach works quite well with the first film I saw at 2022’s Sundance, Kogonada’s After Yang — a rather calm, wisp of a movie that expresses the feeling of being emotionally adrift quite well.
Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, the film centers itself not fully on a collection of plot but more a set-up that slowly drifts along. Set sometime in the future, it’s during one random day that android, or “technosapien,” Yang (Justin H. Min) suddenly stops working. And it’s from there, that it becomes up to Jake (Colin Farrell), the tea-selling dad who bought Yang as a big sibling and cultural anchor for the young daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) that he and his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopted from China, to drag the uncannily lifelike machine down to the local tech center in hope of bringing him back. But replacing Yang’s role in Jake’s home won’t be as simple as buying some replacement model. And when it seems clear that Yang may never come back, Jake unexpectedly begins to mourn the robot’s loss in a very different way than one might grieve some other piece of technology. And there is a little more to it than that, as Kogonada digs lovely rabbit holes of his own design into various pockets of memory, which at times takes the film to transcendental levels.
It’s all very fitting for Kogonada, as the South Korean-born filmmaker and video essayist takes his second feature film and turns it into an unsurprising confirmation of his talent following his gracefully phenomenal 2017 debut, Columbus. Like that movie, though with artificial intelligence standing in for modernist architecture, this wry and wistful futuristic tale continues to show the filmmaker’s sharp eye for tone; almost creating his own delicate brand of cinema that’s wistfully beautiful and intimate. And this one is again rooted in that latter category just as much the tree that grows in the center of Jake’s house is rooted to the soil below.
Perceptively looking towards the way that many of us put feeling towards material things and even contemplating that those things may be able to have feelings for us too, After Yang, in a way, is an ideal alternative to the emotional brutality of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. — being the cinematic equivalent to the type of person who struggles to be present with family, but still eagerly re-watches home videos of them whenever they’re alone. Part of that comes from the fact that the power of this story is dependent on a refusal to downplay the positive role that digital technology can have when it comes to forging human bonds. That aspect is front and center in this movie’s opening, which introduces us to Jake’s family as they participate in a worldwide internet dance competition from the comfort of their living room. And it’s when Yang doesn’t stop dancing after the music cuts off, that becomes the sign that something is off. Jake doesn’t appear too bothered initially when Yang breaks — he’s lost in his tea, passively watching the leaves swirl from his empty shop as if waiting for them to reveal a secret instruction — but his wife Kyra recognizes that nine-year-old Mika is going to lose her mind. They buy her a pet fish while Jake takes Yang to a black market repairman who becomes overly interested in the android after seeing what’s on his hard drive.
Exuding a humane calm that balances robotic detachment with childlike wonder, Min makes a crucially lasting impression during the brief moments we see Yang alive, but Yang’s absence displaces our attention elsewhere. We focus on the invisibility of the film’s future, which is reflected against the glass of Jake’s self-driving car and troubled by glimpses of prejudice (seen in Jake’s own bias against his neighbor’s cloned daughters). We fixate on how the film’s environments seem locked in a stalemate between nature and concrete, as hybridized a state of being as the more-human-than-human technosapiens that most people seem to have in their homes. It’s all about the details, like a certain t-shirt that an extra wears in the background of a scene at a rock concert. It’s the kind of detail that may seem superfluous at first, but it soon proves to unlock an entire universe of memory, as Kogonada figuratively cracks Yang’s head open and starts to ask what a robot might find important amid the cosmos of data they attain everyday.
Kogonada isn’t one to put too fine a point on any of his ideas — one of the many aspects that he takes influence from Yasujirō Ozu — but the touching sentimentality of this film’s second half doesn’t get in the way of his quiet inquiry into how people hold onto a concrete idea of themselves in such a tech-based future. If anything, After Yang is so light an experience that it can almost seem too faint until its rushing aftertaste hits, especially because Farrell’s quiet performance in fact stays, well, quiet. There are faint traces of the sardonic deadpan he brought to The Lobster, but the character actor phase of his career continues to reap unexpected rewards; Jake is ultimately a lens into something bigger, and Farrell lends him a stunted kind of intimacy that makes everything he looks at seem further away. It also helps that Columbus star Haley Lu Richardson — playing a role that’s best kept hidden — eventually arrives to counter that energy with a palpable degree of closeness. The film’s relationship between intimacy and lack thereof is rich enough for After Yang to resonate well into the unspecified period of time that’s alluded to by its title. It’s a movie all about the emotions that happen in the spaces between the big events. A movie that displays the transcendent power that can come with sitting alone (in movie theater or a living room) and processing what you just witnessed; what once was. Alluringly attuned to hushed and unhurried rhythms, After Yang captures the expressiveness of being emotionally adrift; showing an ability to be both effortlessly cerebral and notably affecting.
After Yang had its North American premier at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it sometime in March.