After Yang Review: Defining what it means to be human
The second feature from Columbus director Kogonada, After Yang, is a deep exploration of the connection between humans and technology shown through a charismatic and compassionate lens.
Kogonada sets an interesting tone for After Yang through its aesthetics and atmosphere masterfully elevated by Benjamin Loeb’s striking cinematography. Although there are some distinctly futuristic visuals that signify a larger growth in technology including auto-piloted cars and virtual dance competitions between families, which makes for an awesome opening credits sequence, After Yang presents an interesting blend of technology and natural living that shown within the film’s central family. Although matriarch Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) works in a tech-heavy job field, her husband Jake (Colin Farrell) runs an organic tea shop. Even though their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) enjoys the tech aspects of her life, she still yearns for that physical connection with those around her, especially her dad.
Even the house they live in has a very futuristic look to it, yet also manages to have a strong wood design to it that’s very open. This blend of tech and human is seen mostly through the family’s robot sibling Yang (Justin H. Min). Although Yang looks incredibly human, he is a robot meant to assist the family and connect Mika to her Chinese heritage by looking after her and guiding her in certain ways. Realistically though, Yang is a guiding force for the whole family as he acts as this intelligent and open-minded entity that provides deeper thoughts and an open view of life. Min really adds to this “almost human” vibe of Yang with his truly excellent performance that balances a bluntly cold delivery with subtly meaningful emotion.
That’s what makes him suddenly turning off because of a malfunction genuinely heartbreaking and After Yang explores the grief within the family as they struggle to figure out how to move forward. The family figuring out what to do, essentially, “after Yang” is a fascinating dissection into people’s relationship with technology. Although Kyra makes a fair point about the family relying too much on Yang and possibly developing better personal connections with one another after he’s gone, it’s not that simple. The film excellently establishes Yang as something more than machine and while it might seem tedious to try to fix him or keep him alive rather than just get a new robot, Yang means so much more to the family, especially Mika, and you can’t help but love the struggle Jake endures to find a better solution.
Yang’s malfunction genuinely feels like a death in the family and Jake and the family’s view of it carries a lot of deep personal emotion, certainly more than others they come across. While some just view Yang as a piece of tech or just an opportunity to learn more about “technosapians,” Jake attempts to figure out the best way for Yang’s memory to live on. It’s absolutely moving to watch him try to uncover the pieces of Yang’s life through his memories, which are beautifully displayed through eye-catching visuals, and for everyone to have moments of reflection that flashback to conversations they’ve had with Yang. Each moment has a genuine intimacy and care that’s elevated through Min’s performance and Kogonada’s direction that brings out these thought-provoking views of humanity that are heartwarming and real.
Farrell’s performance equally can’t be understated as he acts as this great audience surrogate and leads the film’s themes about what really means to be human that struggle to persist in the film’s final act. The film becomes a little lost in its own head towards the end as Jake explores parts of a past that he finds in Yang’s memories, including a relationship he had with a mysterious girl named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson). Personally, the later parts of After Yang don’t resonate as strongly as the early parts of the family contemplating about Yang’s impact on their family. The realer aspects of the family’s ties to Yang start to become more abstract and cerebral and it just sort of disconnects you from the film.
While After Yang’s finale reaches for deeper meaning only to struggle to reconnect with its audience, Kogonada provides an unexpectedly emotional story about connection that’s made incredibly captivating and deep through its performances, especially from Min and Farrell, as well as Kogonada’s unique vision for telling a complex, but engaging story of humanity.