After Yang comes into the picture about as quietly and gracefully as a Kogonada film is wont to do. It opens with a picturesque family of the future, each of them purposefully representing a different cultural identity, but bonded together by the unspoken creed of familial ties. Their attachments to not just each other but their grip on acceptance for the world at large gets challenged when one of them, the “older sibling” and artificially intelligent “techno” (Min) mysteriously shuts down for no clear reason.
Based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story, After Yang is familiar at first glance, as various family members cope with grief and loss in their own ways, albeit set against a near-dystopic, near-future setting that strikes an unexpectedly distinct balance between Swan Song‘s anti-flashy “norm-tech” concepts with Claire Denis’s vision of a plant-based circuit city from High Life.
When dealing with what life has to be like “after” Yang, each member of the family goes through their own existential process. The youngest in the family, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), lashes out as children tend to do, bemoaning this sudden change in losing what is sometimes fondly considered her older sibling, but also something of a cross between a nanny and a pet, unbelievably. Say nothing else about After Yang, but Kogonada’s ability to fill invented and predictive archetypes is truly of its own when it comes to this android’s impact.
As for Jake (Farrell), a struggling tea shop owner, his stage of grief is more about bargaining and depression, the two wavering back and forth as he investigates various paths for repairing Yang, but ultimately becoming obsessed in trying to learn who Yang truly was in this world. Not just within the family structure, but outside of it, too. Questions about identity and the personification of objects come into play, reprising many of the striking themes Kogonada laid out so expertly in his masterwork, Columbus. Then, it was architecture evoking a sense of feeling outside of your body in a rapidly decomposing world. After Yang is just as grounded, but dressed up with a futuristic bent that feels almost prophetic.
When more sci-fi concepts get introduced, the waywardness of Kogonada’s screenplay starts to show some wear and tear, particularly with the introduction of a new character played by Haley Lu Richardson. The film brings it all home eventually, but in trying to create meaning with these ideas, it only starts to breed unnecessary confusion, despite the actors clearly in tune with the film’s understated mood and atmosphere. Not a single syllable of dialogue comes off as insincere or out of time.
Like Columbus, After Yang may prove to be the right kind of soft-spoken balm for film lovers in search or even in need of a little hope. And hope that isn’t cheap or ill-earned. It’s powerful without being powerful, joyful without being joyful, and all the other contradictions worth mustering. Imagine it as an extended, feature-length moment from the end of many Full House episodes where the gentle piano swells into emotional catharsis, and this is actually a compliment. For Kogonada to pluck at not just the brain but the heart in such equal measure is a balancing act few other directors can boast right now.