If Columbus was a bold attempt to resurrect slow cinema with a Gen Z-friendly storyline and progressive ideas, After Yang feels like Kogonada challenging himself to apply those same methods in a more dynamic genre. He succeeds, and then some.
Starring Colin Farrell as Jake Fleming, a jaded tea salesman whose marriage to Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) is flagging except for their shared love for young daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), After Yang’s conceit is premised on one of the close-knit family’s members being a robot. That’s Yang (Justin H. Min), one of millions of factory-made “techno-sapien” siblings built to support lonesome only children who lose out from the government’s one-child policy. The family live a comfortable life till Yang has an unexpected and hard-to-diagnose malfunction, throwing Mika’s life in particular into disarray – and challenging Jake’s paternal instincts. Based on writer Alexander Weinstein’s short story ‘Saying Goodbye to Yang’ from his bestselling collection ‘Children of the New World’, After Yang is a reasonably faithful adaptation which nevertheless makes Weinstein’s ideas real – particularly Weinstein’s dedication of the book to his son. Little is known about Kogonada’s own family life – or life at all, really – but it’s clear a great deal of real feeling and relationships drive After Yang’s immensely powerful ideas about the connections we make and the loved ones we’re stuck with.
China’s one-child policy is not the only thing which grounds After Yang in the events of today, but it’s one of few. Set in a distant future in which the “twentieth century” is a statement uttered like “the Stone Age” is now, Kogonada and production designer Alexandra Schaller seem to have had plenty of fun designing the aesthetics of a very specific world-to-come. The self-driving cars and VR glasses and Parasite-style houses aren’t a million miles from how the wealthy live today, but the Flemings’ repression and Jake’s obsession with tea as a memento of the olden days give After Yang a powerful emotional distance from 2021. Those gadgets also give Kogonada the chance to show he can make a movie look much more expensive than it really was, an invaluable skill in Hollywood today.
Though that’s only one of many skills he has in the drawer. A meticulous video-essayist who turned his attention to moviemaking only five years ago, the Seoul-born director once again proves his keen eye for detail with a movie in which every raised eyebrow or too-long sip of tea has meaning. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme music has the same careful focus; having the world’s best score writer write music for your second film is an opportunity Kogonada doesn’t waste, with the ideas Sakamoto expresses about modern alienation in the brilliant documentary Coda not too different to After Yang’s own.
Yet Weinstein’s book was largely about the attachments we make to inanimate objects, and After Yang is interested in something a little different. Less Toy Story than Ozu (whose screenwriter, Kogo Nada, the director snatched his moniker from), After Yang is more focused on the obligations of the nuclear family and the immigrant experience in particular. A seemingly post-racial future presented in much of the film is soon upturned, with Yang’s own robotic identity lending itself to some unexpected introspection. Put simply, Yang can do more than Buzz Lightyear – and After Yang deals with what happens when a manufactured sibling isn’t around anymore. As a nerdy older brother myself, it’s a hard movie to watch for that reason. Yang occupies a similar place in the Fleming household as Mr Spock on the Starship Enterprise, an emotionally stilted but encyclopaedically wise teller of truths to plain old Jim Kirk.
But shirtless fist fights and phaser battles aren’t Kogonada’s style. Don’t be fooled by an energetic opening sequence: tonally, Kogonada has settled. And though “thrilling” isn’t the first word I’d use to describe After Yang or Columbus, it is very thrilling to see a director gain such a refined sense of pace and style so quickly.
The final similarity between Columbus and After Yang is its most important and informative. The oft-screen capped scene in Kogonada’s debut, in which John Cho asks Haley Lu Richardson “What moves you?” holds the key to Kogonada’s early films. The question – and the asking – are much more important than the answer. The immediate attachment forged when someone shows interest in the things which affect us is the subject. Lu Richardson could say anything in response, and it wouldn’t much matter.
In After Yang, questions again matter more than answers. In one scene Jake asks Kyra, “Can I tell you something?” She says, “What?”, and we cut away to something else. Kogonada isn’t being a tease: he wants us to know it doesn’t matter, that the confidence Jake needs to ask – and Kyra’s openness to hear him – is the whole ball game.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. A24 is set to release the film later this year.
Photo courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival