Colin Farrell is haunting in this exceptional sci-fi drama about androids, memory, family, the ties that bind and what it truly means to live.
April 28, 2022
What flickers in a robot's circuitry in its idle moments has fascinated the world for decades, famously so in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 — and in After Yang, one machine appears to long for everything humans do. The titular Yang (Justin H Min, The Umbrella Academy) was bought to give Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) and Jake's (Colin Farrell, The Batman) adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, iCarly) a technosapien brother, babysitter, companion and purveyor of "fun facts" about her heritage. He dotes amid his duties, perennially calm and loving, and clearly an essential part of the family. What concerns his wiring beyond his assigned tasks doesn't interest anyone, though, until he stops operating. Mika is distressed, and Kyra and Jake merely inconvenienced initially, but the latter pledges to figure out how to fix Yang — which is where his desires factor in.
Yang is unresponsive and unable to play his usual part as the household's robotic fourth member. If Jake can't get him up and running quickly, he'll also experience the "cultural techno" version of dying, his humanoid skin even decomposing. That puts a deadline on a solution, which isn't straightforward, particularly given that Yang was bought from a now-shuttered reseller secondhand, rather than from the manufacturer anew, is one roadblock. Tinkering with the android's black box is also illegal, although Jake is convinced to anyway by a repairman (Ritchie Coster, The Flight Attendant). He acquiesces not only because it's what Mika desperately wants, but because he's told that Yang might possess spyware — aka recordings of the family — that'd otherwise become corporate property.
Before all that, there's a stunning dance — a synchronised contest where families around the globe bust out smooth moves in front of their televisions, competing to emerge victorious. The dazzling scene comes during After Yang's opening credits and is a marvel to watch, with writer/director/editor Kogonada (TV series Pachinko) conveying a wealth of meaning visually, thematically, philosophically and emotionally in minutes. To look at, the sequence brings to mind Ex Machina's, aka the Oscar Isaac-led scene that launched a thousand gifs. In what it says about After Yang's vision of an unspecified but not-too-distant future, it's reminiscent of Black Mirror, with engrained surveillance technology eerily tracking participants' every move. It's here, too, amid the joy of the family progressing further than they ever have before, that the fact that Yang is malfunctioning becomes apparent, turning a techno dream in more ways than one into a potential source of heartbreak.
When a feature so easily recalls other films and television shows, and so emphatically, it isn't typically a positive sign. That isn't the case with After Yang. Adapting Alexander Weinstein's short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, Kogonada crafts a movie that resembles a dream for the overwhelming bulk of its running time — it's softly shot like one, and tightly to focus on interiors rather than backgrounds — and that makes it feel like a happily slumbering brain filtering through and reinterpreting its wide array of influences. Another picture that leaves an imprint: Kogonada's own Columbus, his 2017 wonder that also featured Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen), who pops up here as a friend of Yang's that Jake, Kyra and Mika know nothing about. It isn't the shared casting that lingers, but the look and mood and texture, plus the idea that what we see, what we choose to revel in aesthetically and what makes us tick mentally are intertwined; yes, even for androids.
After Yang is transfixing, giving its audience plenty of opportunities to put those notions in motion themselves, all just by watching and being swept up in its gorgeously ruminative frames. It's a sci-fi film to revel in — it's cerebral, existential, meditative, hypnotic and soulful, as well as haunting and almost tangibly sensual — and, in the process, to slide onto its poignant wavelength about what truly defines life. After Yang is also tender and curious about intelligence wrought from flesh and from ones and zeros alike, digging into consciousness, memory, and both the impact of and loss of each. From all of that, it ponders the question that's as old as humanity and may even outlive us: what it genuinely means to be human, especially as AI develops, androids and other smart machinery get more immersed in our lives, and robots become inescapably intertwined with our emotional landscape (and perhaps boast their own).
Her and A.I. Artificial Intelligence have also traversed somewhat similar terrain in their own ways, but After Yang remains its own film — its own take on all that it contemplates, everything it brings up but doesn't dare to try to simplify with clearcut answers, and the journey it makes through layers of recollections upon recollections. As Jake accesses Yang's memories, it reminds him of his own and reinforces a key fact: that memory is one of life's connective threads, linking our loved ones to us even when they're gone or we are. Kogonada conjures this up while evoking a captivating sense of space and framing via his interior-heavy locations, such as Jake, Kyra and Mika's home. Not since Parasite has a house been as pivotal not only as a setting, but to the atmosphere and substance of a movie. Glass and windows feature prominently, lensed lovingly but meticulously by cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (Pieces of a Woman, Mandy), and putting everyday moments in boxes to treasure.
After Yang is a film to feel, to flow with, to sink into, to soak up. It codes that sensation in via Kogonada's sensitive editing, actually, which seems to intuitively mirror the leaping and lurching way the human brain thinks, and through a shifting use of aspect ratios. It's a picture that makes you want to touch it and step into it — and it's home to a masterclass of a quietly powerful portrayal by Farrell, the feature's standout among a well-deployed cast. Operating in the same subtle mode that made him astonishing in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he's a piece of connective tissue, too, bonding Jake's stresses and delights with viewers' (because everything his character experiences emotionally is unshakeably relatable, even sans androids like Yang). Only an exceptional movie can equally think and feel so vastly, and pose unresolvable queries while also offering such a soothing embrace. It's something that Yang might've pined for, and that we all may have without ever realising it; to see here, it's magic.