After Yang (2022)
Written & Directed by Kogonada
The aesthetics will strike you first when watching writer-director Kogonada’s newest film, After Yang. The world feels influenced by Asian & Scandinavian architecture, fashion, and overall design. It’s done in such a subtle manner, using elements from various sources that have a visually pleasing unity. This is not the neon glow of Blade Runner’s future, but a warm, earthy home with a family going about their life. It’s the sort of portrayal of the future that feels revolutionary in its mundanity. Technology is not an object of spectacle; it’s blended into people’s everyday existence. The characters and the film never directly comment on these things because, in real life, we don’t outwardly talk about an appliance as we use it, declaring wonder. We lose the magic of these things we have created; they become a part of the domestic landscape.
Jake (Colin Farrell) has devoted his life to tea. He makes blends by hand in his small, minimalist concrete shop. At home, he’s husband to Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and father to Mika. Mika’s adoption from China led to Yang (Justin H. Min) coming to live with them. In an older culture, Yang is a techno sapiens, a robot designed and explicitly programmed to help adopted Chinese children remain in touch with their birth culture. One day Yang becomes unresponsive, which triggers his decomposition programming.
Jake takes Yang to technicians, and they tell him he can have Yang recycled and replaced, but his damage lies in his core, something they are not legally allowed to tamper with. Jake can’t let go of Yang yet and seeks out a black market repairman who provides him with the means to access Yang’s memories. Through watching Yang’s life through his eyes and recalling his own moments with what is, for all intents & purposes, Jake’s son, the man, comes to understand the complexity of Yang’s life, lived out over many lifetimes due to being refurbished. He also finds out Yang had an entire secret life with relationships Jake never knew about.
There is no expansive global viewpoint in After Yang. Instead, it’s a movie that seeks to look at the future and humanity from a very intimate perspective. This is shown in the credits sequence, where we are introduced to every central member of the story. It’s done exceptionally creatively, though a battle royale style family dance competition people compete in from the comfort of their living rooms. This isn’t a utopian vision either but feels more in line with a natural progression from our own point, though climate change is not addressed. The underground repairman Jake works with is subtly presented as Sinophobic. He mentions spyware being inside the black box core of Yang, implying that Chinese manufacturers are data-mining people through techno sapiens. A few posters in the repairman’s shop hint at war with China within these characters’ lifetimes, but this is never openly discussed in the picture.
Furthermore, we learn that Jake bought Yang, not new but from a refurbisher who closed up shop shortly after that and lied to him about how many times the techno had been owned. This is central to Jake’s investigation and discovery, uncovering the past lives of Yang that are what made him who he was. Another realistic point that keeps the film from being a vision of a perfect future are Jake’s own personal prejudices. He’s not virulent, but it’s made clear that he is uncomfortable with clones and prefers not to associate with them. Yang remarks on this in one memory when he confesses that he didn’t inform Jake of a particular piece of information. Their neighbor George is a single parent with three children, one of whom is a clone. It’s implied that this is a clone of a deceased child. Jake keeps his distance from the neighbor because of this clone but is later called out on it by the girl herself, and her anger makes sense with a later revelation.
One of Yang’s most pressing questions that never gets an answer is “How is he Chinese?”. He exists to help Chinese children remain connected to their culture without ever truly being a part of that culture. Yang’s techno type is a manufactured person with the express purpose of cultural connection without ever having experienced it himself. There is a flashback where Jake shares his love of tea with Yang, talking about a film he saw where a character could extrapolate so much emotion from a brew and its flavors. Yang drinks tea, yearning to have the same experience, but the noise of his system processing the liquid draws Jake out of the quiet moment. He is reminded of the things that separate his experience from Yang, which cools the relationship between them. Yang expresses regret that he can only recite facts and struggles to understand if he can feel things the same way the humans around him do.
We find out later, through Yang’s memories, that he was bonded with another Chinese adoptee who showed resentment for being reminded of his birth culture. We can infer that this child had difficulty integrating with the community he was living in now or perceived rejection because of his ethnic differences. Yang symbolized that, and the boy shuts him out, refusing to talk to him. However, Yang’s other lives make him such a rich person. He has experienced more than someone like Jake ever could, and Yang’s quiet contemplation of himself (seen in POV memories of staring into a mirror and gently touching his artificial skin) is what made him such a perfect member of the family. Yang ultimately is not human; he is something more. The diversity he and other technos and even clones bring to the table adds to existence. They see life through eyes that we never could, and through that, they can expand what it means to be alive. These aren’t entirely new ideas in science fiction, but how Kogonada explores them and gently weaves and unweaves these themes in his narrative makes After Yang a beautiful picture.