There’s an appealing, lulling rhythm to Kogonada’s second feature, but few of its philosophical inquires are met with worthy responses.
There is much to savor in Kogonada’s first cinematic project since his widely acclaimed Columbus, and After Yang, indeed, arrives like spring after a lurid winter of technophobic isolation and anxiety. Faced with dwindling prospects of independence, and inundated instead with the creeping personalization of all things consumable, our society as a whole has straddled a discomfiting relationship with nature and artifice, humanism, and transhumanism; in particular, the technologies of home both comfort and confound our notions of the familiar, seeking constant evolution and relentless metastasizing toward unpredictable but all too pessimistic ends. After Yang, in this light, arrives with great pathos and acuity, its inert yet subtly shifting frames echoing the almost metaphysical Zen of Columbus. Whereas the latter’s careful compositions and employment of negative space offered sociological and personal ruminations on change and continuity, Kogonada now explores in greater detail the technological subject: its subjectivity, consciousness, and fundamental place within greater civilization.
Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s impeccable short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” After Yang imagines a not-so-distant future of robotic caretakers incarnated as figures of human flesh, manufactured to fulfil man’s household wants and need for companionship. Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), an archetypical liberal and suburban middle-class American couple of the time, have adopted both an ethnically Chinese girl named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and one such caretaker, or techno sapien. Yang (Justin H. Min), Chinese-customized and configured as a lanky, ingenuous big-brother persona to Mika, malfunctions in the film’s opening minutes, presumably the fault of second-hand ownership. No longer whole, Jake’s family faces an existential strain of several proportions: the absence of a babysitter for Mika weighs as added responsibilities for both working parents, and the sudden loss of the quotidian forces its inhabitants to confront Yang’s background presence in their lives with newfound appreciation — and perhaps, unavoidably, some level of valorization.
Kogonada’s vivid sequences, part family portrait, part societal daguerreotype, find their firm bases in a plenitude of works both classical and modern: Blade Runner, perhaps, achieves the greatest resonance here, with Jake’s attempts to first recover and then revisit Yang’s archived memories recalling Rick Deckard’s painfully futile inquiries, through the zoom-ins and close-ups of dead images, for living truth. So too will the avid viewer spot, perhaps as mere thematic resemblance or affectation, similar emotional strands in Maria Schrader’s candidly romantic I’m Your Man and Edson Oda’s insecurely maudlin Nine Days. As much as After Yang heroically attempts to transcend these points of reference, however, the film — like its titular character — sputters in its second half, disappointingly squandering its strange but not unwelcome mélange of indie quirk and revelatory realism for hand-me-down predictability. The equally bizarre and credible world of monthly virtual dance-offs, biological cloning, and political identification vis-à-vis patterns of technological consumption quickly recedes into the background of our sci-fi consciousness, leaving in its wake an emotional arc neither explanatory nor truly emotional. What if androids could dream of electric girls?
Haley Lu Richardson, previously Columbus’ (both fascinating and fascinated) protagonist, reappears in After Yang as Ada, another techno sapien for whom Yang allegedly had a romantic attraction. Her sudden presence and subsequent development serves as an irreversible rupture in the film’s gently mundane fabric, forgoing much of this mundanity for melodramatic passion. Arguably, however, it is the way Kogonada undertakes his monumental task of fracturing the film’s subject that proves its biggest bane. Through intriguing but ultimately cosmetic displays of perspective shifts — frequently utilizing multiple takes of the same event and achieving through this repetition a mise en abyme effect somewhat — the filmmaker imprints upon the viewer his apparent stab at profundity. True to its title, After Yang focuses less on the living Yang, and more so on the possibilities his lived experience and memories present for his owners; as the taciturn Jake, accompanied by wife and daughter, excavate, reflect, mourn, cope, and live beyond their beloved assistant, they seek closure and catharsis not just from the rituals that express humanity over utility, but also in the search for authenticity within, and despite, their world of discrete lives, frames, compartments, existences. Seen this way, After Yang admirably examines what it means to be human in a world of humanoids, but minus the occasional venture beyond genre accoutrement, much of its post-mortem remains too mired in a hermetic, and perhaps overly self-aware, state to properly attempt a response to the many questions it poses. Would an African or Indian Yang change anything? What defines Mika’s “culture and heritage,” and how do her origins figure into the film’s cosmopolitan yet paradoxically still labor-dependent America? Why do androids dream? While there is solace in the lulling rhythm of Kogonada’s work, the future is better confronted in all its disequilibria.
You can currently stream Kogonada’s After Yang on Showtime.