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‘After Yang’ Review: Colin Farrell Goes Poking Through Memories in This Thinking Person’s Sci-Fi

In just his second feature, 'Columbus' director Kogonada emerges as a major voice — although audiences may have to lean in to hear it.

After Yang
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

After Yang” takes place far enough in the future that it doesn’t seem unusual for a family to have acquired a virtual big brother for their adopted Chinese daughter. The robot — or “techno-sapien,” as such advanced appliances are politely referred to in the race-blind, android-accepting society writer-director Kogonada neatly imagines — has ceased to function, and the man of the house (Colin Farrell) has the tricky task of getting him fixed. You can’t flush a surrogate sibling the way you might a dead goldfish, but tinkering with it yields profound, thought-provoking results for the family, and audiences too, in this subtly crafted sci-fi parable.

Liberally adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, “After Yang” doesn’t oversell the conceptual stuff, the way a Philip K. Dick project might. Kogonada uses innovation not to alarm, but as license to ruminate on how certain human functions work, among them memory, attachment and what we think of as individuality. Tonally, the results aren’t far from Spike Jonze’s “Her,” though there are elements of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” in there too — except that in Kogonada’s “Pinocchio” update, the robot already got to be a real boy, and his owner is only just discovering what a special entity the family has been living with all along.

“After Yang” is not at all the sophomore feature admirers might have expected from the creator of 2017’s “Columbus,” a well-respected if somewhat stiff examination of relationships, inherited versus organic, which asked audiences to consider architecture and design as crucial components of how people connect. That film felt like the live-action equivalent of a Chris Ware comic strip: smart, a little schematic, a lot melancholy, its every frame seemingly mapped out on graph paper in advance.

This film is similarly precise, with its desaturated palette, meticulous framing and near-mathematical cutting style (consider the opening-credits dance contest or the sly way one shot lingers on an empty room long enough to discover an intruder). And yet, Kogonada’s concerns remain fundamentally human. The movie’s pulse seldom rises above resting, but the director invites audiences to dive as deep as they want to go into the film’s themes, to read subtext into body language, silence and the space between characters.

It’s there in the clipped video calls between Farrell’s character, Jake, and his wife, Kyra (“Queen & Slim” star Jodie Turner-Smith), who calmly expresses concern while giving her husband room for the epic journey of sorting out what’s wrong with Yang (Justin H. Min), 90% of which happens in his head. Farrell, who typically comes across agitated and aggressive, has never given such an understated performance, and Kogonada dials it down even further by shooting the actor from a distance and from semi-inscrutable angles — a trick he lifted from Ozu.

Jake’s an old-school, Eastern-minded soul — he runs a loose-leaf-tea shop and maintains a Japanese-furnished, open-concept Eichler home — living in a world of self-driving cars and gleaming skyscrapers, wisely relegated to the half-obscured background of a select few shots. But his daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjajazu), isn’t quite so patient, and her non-comprehending childlike demands threaten to disrupt his investigation.

Weinstein’s “Saying Goodbye to Yang” opens with the android plunging his head into a bowl of Cheerios. That’s how the malfunction manifests, and one can imagine it being hard for young Mika — who calls her companion “Gege” — to process. In the film, Yang simply stops working, but the dead eyes can be just as disturbing.

It’s a typically male impulse for Jake to deal with the situation by looking to “fix” Yang. But when the technicians at the local repair store say he’s basically kaput, Jake is obliged to seek out someone a little less conventional, locating a crackpot specialist who hacks bots from his garage. The guy has all sorts of wild conspiracies, ranting about how these techno-sapiens are essentially “spyware,” infiltrating unsuspecting homes and collecting data on everything they see.

That’s one way of looking at it, but Jake is more taken by the more professional opinion he gets from an expert (Sarita Choudhury) at the local A.I. museum, who’s excited by the sugar cube-size memory bank they’ve extracted from Yang’s core. She rigs a pair of viewing specs for Jake to access what his robot might have recorded, and before long, this mild-mannered father is taking melancholy trips through Yang’s most precious moments — arranged as a kind of memory forest, a glowing grid from which short snippets play like so many TikTok videos.

The music, which sets a mellow undertone for most of the film, tends to soar whenever Jake goes for one of these VR-style strolls into Yang’s subconscious. That’s fair: Jake’s having his mind blown as he discovers what mattered most to this mysterious family member, who wasn’t programmed to experience emotion. (Or maybe his owners weren’t programmed to recognize it.) Yang’s recordings are touchingly naive, documenting a sunbeam or a smile the way an appreciative puppy might, for future recall.

Turns out, Yang had an entire life before he joined their household — possibly even several of them — as Jake traces the roots of things this secondhand android taught (or implanted in) Mika. Yang even took the initiative to connect with someone on the outside, Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), a barista whose significance remains an enigma until nearly the end.

Another storyteller might have treated these revelations as sinister, but Kogonada avoids thriller clichés. The director — a Korean-born, America-based formalist who has studied and deconstructed the visual poetics of auteurs ranging from Wes Anderson to Robert Bresson in a series of film-geek video essays — is swiftly finding his own voice, though it’s still early enough in his career that we’re only starting to realize what he’s capable of. “Columbus” may have gotten our attention, but after “Yang,” anything seems possible.

‘After Yang’ Review: Colin Farrell Goes Poking Through Memories in This Thinking Person’s Sci-Fi

Reviewed at Christine 21, Paris, July 3, 2021. (In Cannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 101 MIN.

  • Production: Producers: Theresa Park, Andrew Goldman, Caroline Kaplan, Paul Mezey. Executive producer: Philipp Engelhorn.
  • Crew: Director: Kogonada. Screenplay: Kogonada, based on the short story "Saying Goodbye to Yang" from the book “Children of the New World” by Alexander Weinstein. Camera: Benjamin Loeb. Editor: Kogonada. Music: Aska Matsumiya.
  • With: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Jutin H. Min, Orlagh Cassidy, Ritchie Coster, Sarita Choudhury, Clifton Collins Jr.
  • Music By: