Film Review: ‘After Yang’
by Koom Kankesan
Kogonada’s small budget sci-fi film stars Colin Farrell as Jake, a man who seems slightly out of alignment with his family and everything around him. When his adopted android son Yang malfunctions, Jake must try and revive him. Though that proves impossible, Jake is able to access Yang’s memory banks and explore exactly who Yang was and the nature of the android’s consciousness and humanity.
After Yang is a low key sci-fi drama directed by Kogonada. It stars Colin Farrell as Jake, a husband and somewhat unsuccessful tea merchant who must deal with the sudden malfunction and death of his adopted son, Yang (Justin H. Min), an android known in the film’s parlance as a “sentient.” Jake lives in a near future where cars drive themselves and A. I. has integrated itself into society on various levels. His wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) seems to be the breadwinner in the family and Jake ends up picking up the loose ends when dealing with their young child Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and her reactions to the loss of Yang.
It should be noted that Kyra is black (and seemingly British) and that Mika is Chinese. Though no explanation is given, this seems to be a future where racial integration is much more common. Thus, Yang being Chinese himself is an important thing for Mika and something touched upon by the film. How did Jake and Kyra end up getting a Chinese daughter? Did they adopt her or is this a future where one can induce the genetic makeup of one’s offspring? Neither explanation is given. Jake’s neighbour has daughters who are clones so there seems to be a lot of choice in terms of how one construes family. Racial politics and identity are important to this director, who has spoken out about the need for more Asian actors playing prominent roles in American films.
Without revealing too many spoilers, the film consists of Jake trying to get Yang repaired and failing. The outlet which sold Yang as a refurbished model — almost ‘brand new’ — has gone out of business. A journey to a mechanic who has gripes against the powers that be disassembles Yang’s core to discover that the sentient has been making mini recordings each day, violating all kinds of privacy laws. Jake finds the most receptiveness, however, with Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), a specialist who works at a museum devoted to understanding the consciousness of sentients. Much of the film is devoted to Jake watching the captured video clips in Yang’s memory banks and discovering who he was from the inside. It turns out that Yang is much older than they’d previously thought and has built an emotional life and history accordingly.
Though this is a film that has something to say about race, the aspects that stand out the most are the neo sci-fi elements. This film could very well be placed in a category of newer, low budget sci-fi films like Ex Machina and Upgrade. These films do without the big budgets and sets of classic sci-fi films and instead work with concepts that seem very relevant to life today – technological dependency, privacy, artificial intelligence, and ethical choices being recurring themes. There is also something about the performances, more subdued and often utilizing actors who aren’t A-listers but possess strong skills, that link these films to indie cinema rather than blockbusters. As such, this film falls into that category through a very understated but considered performance by Farrell (who’s not always the strongest actor, but has made a very deliberate transition into carefully chosen art films after a misspent youth plagued by tacky film roles and media notoriety) and his explorations of Yang’s memory and consciousness. Aided by the art of appreciating tea, it makes for a fairly meditative film.