Films about androids, robots, and other sapient automatons generally wrestle with the question of ‘what it means to be human’, but this is not an issue that Kogonada’s After Yang is particularly interested in – Kogonada actually has one of his characters scoff at the pointlessly self-centred nature of the question. Instead, this lo-fi future drama meets its eponymous android (or techno-sapien, in the film’s parlance) at its own level in a slow but hypnotic look at how a quasi-immortal but also reprogrammable being might process grief, and how we might change our own worldviews to comprehend that grief.
As the title gently implies, After Yang – adapting a short story by Alexander Weinstein – opens with a death. In this case, it’s Yang (Justin H Min), a ‘techno’ living with the Fleming family, purchased as a big brother for their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) to help her acclimatise whilst maintaining a link to her original parents’ heritage. After family dance night – the amusing choreography of which graces the film’s title sequence – Yang simply shuts down. With no identifiable damage, the repair teams can’t explain why he collapsed, but he won’t turn back on, so they can only suggest ‘recycling’ him, leading Fleming dad Jake (Colin Farrell) on a low-key odyssey to find an explanation.
At first, After Yang is barely sci-fi at all – aside from the driverless cars and some distant architecture there’s little to suggest we’re not in our current world (it’s the same sort of soft, earth-toned future of films like Her or the Mahershala Ali vehicle Swan Song). Instead, Kogonada explores how the fault lines and cracks of a family can splinter further when help that’s taken for granted suddenly disappears. Mika acts out, and Jake and his more successful wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) can’t stop sniping at each other.
Kogonada keeps these dramas minor and there’s barely a raised voice across the entire film, but you find yourself deeply invested in this family unit thanks to the rich, lived-in writing and, particularly, Farrell’s performance as a man who wants to think he’s content but can’t quite shake his regrets. After Yang’s stakes are very low, even when Jake finds illicit memory software in Yang’s body; he simply uses it to get to know Yang better. Memory is a core theme here for Kogonada, both Jake and Kyra finding themselves repeatedly poring over their past interactions with Yang, wondering if they might have snapped at him or made some almost undetectable emotional overstep.
Only Yang’s memories can be truly, logically trusted, but even they are charged with grief and love. Kogonada shoots the whole thing in a way that is reminiscent of old home movies – though with far more beautiful compositions than your average family – a technique that pays off especially strongly in these memories, which have a warmth and life to them. All told, it’s a very kind future that Kogonada imagines, not to mention incredibly chic and stylish, one that draws you in deep without you really noticing until you feel like you’ve lived there for years.