Based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, Kogonada’s second feature is an effortlessly diverse sci-fi story about a family coming to terms with the loss of their beloved robot helper. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the cult status of this director’s work has been legendary since the release of his stunning debut, Columbus; the anticipation for its follow up is palpable. And, if you want more beautiful and bewildering human turmoil that you can’t quite fathom, it doesn’t disappoint. ‘I don’t think I have the language for it,’ says Colin Farrell’s character at one point on his love of tea. Justin H. Min’s robotic AI doesn’t mind the lack of an explanation. ‘I love watching you make tea. It’s very beautiful,’ he muses. Watching a Koganada film is just like that.
In a near future, techno-sapiens – humanoid A.I. robots sold to act as helpers – are a regular commodity of society. Yang (Justin H. Min) is one such robot, bought to help Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra’s (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), connect with her Chinese heritage. But one day, Yang shuts down and doesn’t wake up again. Frantic to reassure his distressed daughter that her best-friend-meets-adoptive-brother will be fine, Jake seeks out someone who can help. But as he investigates, he is told that Yang is a significantly older model than they realised and cannot be repaired. Only one thing remains of their beloved helper: Yang’s data bank. Jake, mourning without realising it, accesses Yang’s memories, and is met with an existence far more complex than he ever expected.
Architecture remains Kogonada’s love language for storytelling. The lines of rooms, the shape of space, the framing of buildings is so meticulous and so intimate; we are separate from the characters within – peering through doorways, through panes of glass or from another room – and yet we are so closely immersed in the filmmaker’s reality. After Yang is set in a futuristic world, but often places us in spaces that are familiar: a living room, a coffee shop, the path to a house. A few years ago, I wrote about Columbus and the way Kogonada uses negative space and the position of the audience – we are always observers in his films, powerless but to watch. And yet we are always desperate to be a part of his story; we are always desperate to be in control, but ultimately feel so ineffectual as we so often do in our own lives.
The film is largely driven by Colin Farrell’s character discovering his robot son’s unknown past and tracking down his secret companion Ada (returning collaborator Haley Lu Richardson) – but it is almost entirely fulfilled by the patchwork of characters he vicariously falls in love with through these recorded memories. It’s not surprising, then, that it is Justin H. Min’s performance in the titular role that steals the show, despite his being largely absent from the film. The film seems to say that what is not there is often just as important as what is. As always, Kogonada’s work is meditative and it’s messy. People want peace and yet they are pure pandemonium. How better to explore that than through a family who lose a member who they believed could not possibly be as complicated, and yet inevitably was.
Yang’s conception in the family, as a companion for Mika, but also as a guide to teaching her the importance of her biological heritage as well as her familial one is just so lovely and managed with such care. Their relationship creates a poignancy to Yang’s yearning for real memories of the place he teaches her about. (It’s worth commenting that young Tjandrawidjaja is also bright enough to work against the established talents of Farrell and Turner-Smith.) In Columbus, Jin (portrayed by John Cho) was pulled between his Korean upbringing and his American livelihood. After Yang continues this exploration of belonging to more than one culture, and the importance of connection and tradition without overriding one’s own self-made identity.
As the credits roll, you do wonder if the film is perhaps philosophical and thoughtful to a fault. Columbus was just as wanderingly cerebral, but maybe because the most integral character departs us so soon, After Yang remains mystifying in a way the director’s debut avoided. Ultimately, the performances are the gold paint binding together the more fragmented pieces of the narrative. It is, undeniably, a Kogonada film through and through. After Yang is a quiet science-fiction; the human experience is deafening.
After Yang was released theatrically in the United States on March 4th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.