Writer-director Kogonada creates an immersive future world in his contemplative sci-fi drama After Yang, but he’s more interested in existential musings than in predicting the course of society. There’s little to no explanation for how long “technosapiens” have been part of everyday life, where they came from or what their functions are beyond the insular family unit at the center of the movie. The important thing is that the android named Yang (Justin H. Min) is an integral part of this family, whose camaraderie is evident in a cute, stylish opening-credits sequence showcasing their moves as part of a virtual dance-off against other families.
Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) bought Yang as a companion for their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), and he’s been her surrogate older brother for as long as she’s been alive. Jake and Kyra adopted Mika from China, and Yang’s initial purpose was to serve as a connection to Chinese culture and language.
Of course, no matter what he looks like, Yang isn’t actually Chinese, any more than he’s American or British or any other nationality or ethnicity. The question of what constitutes racial and cultural identity in this kind of future is one that Kogonada asks gently, without any heavy-handed lectures, particularly in a lovely scene in which Jake, who makes and sells artisanal teas, discusses tea’s Chinese origins with Yang. Yang knows lots of facts about Chinese tea, but he can’t appreciate it the way Jake does.
After Yang deals more directly with the issue of grief, particularly for children, when Yang unexpectedly malfunctions and is unable to be repaired, since he was purchased as a discounted refurbished model. At that point, Yang has effectively died, although he’s not a person and is treated more like a malfunctioning piece of technology by the various mechanics and technicians that Jake consults.
Desperate to spare Mika from the loss of her treasured companion, Jake goes on an increasingly frantic search for a way to preserve Yang, even just fragments of his memories that he’s stored away. In the process, Jake discovers an entire inner life and previous existence that Yang kept hidden from the family, revealing levels of longing and regret that seem unmistakably human.
There’s no miracle to bring Yang back to life, though, and the characters have to face their feelings of loss. But After Yang isn’t depressing or pessimistic, even when its characters are sad. It’s a celebration of the wonders of life, for both humans and androids, with the end of life as one of those wonders. Farrell gives a sensitive, moving performance as a father who learns to accept that he can’t shield his child from all emotional pain, and Min captures Yang’s growing sense of self in a performance depicted mostly in small snippets.
Kogonada made his feature debut with the similarly heartfelt Columbus, and After Yang is just as carefully composed as that architecture-inspired drama. The spaces that the characters inhabit aren’t stereotypically futuristic, but they represent a world that is clearly different from the present, and Kogonada uses his eye for design to reflect the characters’ personalities and professions in their environments. Jake creates and brews his teas the old-fashioned way, which is apparently rare in this time, and the family’s self-driving car has what looks like a small garden in its backseat.
Like Jake’s business, the movie’s future is organic and hand-crafted. That reflects Jake’s approach to taking care of Yang, even when others suggest mining him for spare parts, and it reflects Kogonada’s approach to making this quiet, precious movie.