In the gentle science fiction drama ‘After Yang’, a family is unexpectedly moved when its android gives up the ghost. The Korean-American director Kogonada uses this simple fact to reflect on universal existential themes. A silent but touching film.
When you hear the word ‘science fiction’, you quickly think of distant worlds, spectacular action or high-tech evolutions. But the genre is much broader and more flexible than that. The best SF storytellers primarily want to ask pertinent questions about what it means to be human.
That is certainly the intention of ‘After Yang’, the second feature film by the Korean-American filmmaker who signs his work under the pseudonym Kogonada. Set in a near future, the story depicts an average family: father Jake (role of Colin Farrell), mother Kyra and adopted daughter Mika. To explain the essence of her ancestral Chinese culture to the girl, the parents brought in an android, Yang. Over the years, the human-looking AI robot has pretty much become Mika’s big brother. Until one day the machine breaks down, Mika is in a state of complete disarray and Jake has to rush to find a repair service. Then he discovers something about Yang that he hadn’t suspected.
‘After Yang’ is the second feature film by Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada. The mild-mannered drama is based on a science fiction story by Alexander Weinstein. It centers on a father (Colin Farrell) looking for a way to fix his daughter’s faulty android. Because of that simple story, the film asks questions about memory, technology and mortality.
‘After Yang’ is based on a short story by the American author Alexander Weinstein from the collection ‘Children of the New World’ (in 2016 on the list of the best 100 books by The New York Times). Originally, Kogonada was asked to film another story. ‘An ambitious Matrix-esque idea. As a director, I wasn’t ready to tackle that yet,” he says.
The trailer for ‘After Yang’.
‘But I was drawn to the simplicity and silence of another story, ‘Saying Goodbye to Yang’. This is initially about a father who is ill because he has to repair an electronic device of his daughter. When he remembers certain moments with Yang, something starts to gnaw at him. I loved the idea that loss and grief can sneak up on you.’
Ultimately, ‘After Yang’ is about the eternal themes of life and death, with a new interpretation. Futuristic technology plays an important role in the story – Yang is an android – but essentially it doesn’t really matter what those machines can do. What counts is the relationship we have with it as humans.
Essentially, it doesn’t really matter what machines like androids can do. What counts is the relationship we have with it as humans.
“We can become emotionally attached to technology,” Kogonada says. “It’s a new kind of life. The debate about artificial intelligence often revolves around the question of what the boundary is between humans and machines, but that doesn’t interest me here. In ‘After Yang’ the question is what happens when you bring such a creature to life. So what does it mean to turn it off again? Is ‘death’ as essential to that being as it is to us? You can also ask that question about cloning.’
The filmmaker spins a modest and rocking film around these existential themes, an unctuous meditation that is embedded in an intriguing world. It’s no coincidence that ‘After Yang’ has a distinctly oriental feel, and not just from the Buddhist angle, a legacy of Kogonada’s upbringing. The entire setting of the story has an Asian appearance, from the houses with the large sash windows to the loose cotton clothes the characters wear.
“The underlying idea is that the world in the film has experienced enormous catastrophe related to the climate and nature,” says Kogonada. ‘That’s what we based the design of the film on: what does a city look like in a world that has suffered the consequences of its own arrogance and ignorance?’
‘It seemed logical to work with oriental elements. Until the modern revolution, Western thought was often driven by religious principles, including design. The oriental history and by extension the oriental design are more in line with nature. This has a more modern resonance, even if it concerns an age-old way of thinking. This way of dealing with the world is more sustainable and therefore makes more sense. Hence, much science fiction has an almost fetishistic love for orientalism. In any case, that fits seamlessly with this story.’
‘After Yang’ hits theaters this week.
Kogonada’s visual film essays can be seen at kogonada.com.