What makes us human? What defines us as a species over all others? How do we wrestle with loss when we know life is so fleeting? Big questions posed many times during the history of storytelling and cinema but they have perhaps never been answered as appropriately, as intelligently, and as movingly as they are in the extraordinary After Yang, the sophomore directorial offering from Kogonada, one of cinema’s biggest enigmas but brightest and unique talents. Fresh from his astounding debut Columbus, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, his work now comes with the added pressures of expectation and anticipation that go with a rapturously received first outing, but we never doubted him for a minute.
Set in an unspecified time in the future, a young family – parents Jake (Colin Farrell, magnificent) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith, radiant) and adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, feisty and sweet) – have to tend to their smart, fully “humanised” android, Yang (Justin H. Min, intoxicating) who has seemingly malfunctioned, almost beyond repair. After Jake, distracted and stressed at other forces around him and his family, visits multiple professionals and specialists who give their verdicts on whether the “techo-sapian” can be saved or not, he discovers that Yang may have been more advanced than others of his kind and that he has not only been recording memories of his time “alive” – much longer than first imagined – but that he formed a friendship with the mysterious Ada (Haley Lu Richardson, superb as ever). And, through his memories, Jake begins to reflect on both Yang’s existence and his own.
As with Columbus, After Yang is a meticulously composed, thoughtful, and beautiful film even before you begin to dive under the surface. It may seem like every shot has been discussed, deliberated, and contextualised for months beforehand and while that might be slightly true to a degree, it’s through Kogonada’s sheer artistry and defined perspectives that make it so. Teaming this time with Benjamin Loeb, who shot last year’s powerful Pieces of a Woman and Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, there isn’t a frame wasted here: delicate and seductive one minute, fascinating and contemplative, yet always mesmeric, it fuses its ideas of the future (while not showing too much) with modern Far East architectural influences to whisk us off into the “near distant” while still feeling attached to the right now. Many independent films of this ilk can live or die on a unique vision, something to break it away from “the norm”, and Kogonada’s is one of the most arresting and masterful we’ve seen for many a year.
Indeed, it isn’t just the distinct visuals the film shares with its younger sibling, it also has a smart, intoxicating narrative at its heart that layers in themes about life, love, grief, parenthood, family, self-reflection, and more, whilst dissecting and exploring humanity’s relationship with technology – and vice-versa – and the marvels of both present and future with judgement and without alarm. Through its calm, unhurried pace, Kogonada examines both the connection and disconnect caused by technology, our overfamiliarity and reliance on it but also its power to transcend, to help us move beyond our boundaries to become more loving and attentive if we just found the right balance: more time away from screens is the end game but utilised correctly, they can also be a source of inspiration and conciliation. A celebratory, inspiring, and exhilarating love letter to the power of humanity, technology, and the uneasy relationship in the middle.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Sundance Film Festival 2022 | A24 | Dir. Kogonada | Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin H. Min, Clifton Collins Jnr and Haley Lu Richardson