It’s been five years since audiences were swept away by director Kogonada’s emotionally-driven debut, Columbus. Now, he returns to up the ante with the driving of emotions in his science fiction drama, After Yang; an adaptation of Alexander Weinstein’s short story, Saying Goodbye to Yang.
Jake (Colin Farrell) has a crisis on his hands when Yang (Justin H. Min) — an android designed to be a sort of “second sibling” and cultural guide for his Chinese adoptee daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) — malfunctions. Jake goes to several places to find a resolution, at the urging of his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), to have him fixed as quickly as possible. Along the way, through memories of Yang’s, Jake becomes aware of the life he has grown somewhat unattached from and realizes just how human Yang really is.
There’s a lot of plot elements in After Yang that have been done before in fiction, such as a robotic figure coming to terms with their humanity and redefining what a family looks like. The way Kogonada brought out an extra layer of depth to these elements in his film becomes intrinsic when Yang’s initial purpose is revealed and what his memories have captured in time. Min as Yang is superb in bringing these parts to life with his performance, as it could have otherwise been so easy for this to have come off as not as genuinely lived in.
Because of how integrated Yang is into the family unit that his malfunction is seen as sort of a death — initially by Mika alone, and overtime, her parents come to see it as such too. In any other story, this film could have been very much been about moving on, but that’s not necessarily the case when said being has the potential to be repaired. Instead, this film is about understanding how Yang has come to be a member of the family and the impact he has had in the lives beyond just Mika’s. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
It’s through exploring the lives that Yang has touched that brings about a subplot that didn’t really add much in the bigger scheme of things, and that’s regarding his friendship with Ada (Haley Lu Richardson). There’s a fascinating story to her that, had it been better integrated into the film, would have made for a incredible addition. But because of how little of a role it winds up playing in the story, Kogonada was better off leaving it out altogether. The purpose behind it is there, but it just wasn’t as impactful as he would have otherwise intended.
The world in After Yang feels so lived in, but not in the same way as Columbus. While the distinctive architecture of the Indiana city defines the world of Kogonada’s debut, there are actually very few exterior shots to rely on in this case, save for a brief glance at a subtly, futuristic-looking city landscape. It’s unknown as to exactly when — or where, for that matter — this story is set, but it’s far enough into the future to where technology is not as overly flashy as sci-fi enthusiasts would otherwise be quick to imagine, and where caring and yielding the natural resources of this planet is so ingrained into society, it’s noticeable in the aesthetics alone. It’s quite an intelligent decision, in an effort to keep this film very grounded.
In addition to Min, everyone’s performances made the film as effectively moving as it is: from Turner-Smith’s well-meaning Kyra, to Farrell’s quietly determined Jake. But it’s Tjandrawidjaja’s performance as Mika that really hits it on the nail. From the looks of her IMDb, After Yang marks her feature film debut. She is brilliant at bringing out the emotional reality at hand when Yang malfunctions, and her performance feels as seasoned as her adult co-stars. She has a bright future ahead as an actor with how believable she can bring about emotions and moods in a character.
After Yang is a film that allows you to feel things. It takes a concept and plot elements that have been done before, and then Kogonada takes them to another place. It’s a beautifully, meditative film on life, family, memory, and humanity that deserves every word of praise that comes its way.