The future looks quietly but unmistakably Asian in After Yang. It looks that way in a lot of movies, though it’s rarely portrayed as something positive. If the world to come is more Asian in these films, it’s usually also more dystopian, dense, and grimy, lit by neon hanzi or, in one of the most famous images in Blade Runner (and movies in general), a luminous geisha smiling down on a gloomy neo–Los Angeles from a skyscraper-size ad. Western filmmakers who have found the details of present-day eastern cities exotic enough to repurpose them and create a sense of temporal distance have, consciously or not, made those borrowed trappings a symptom of societies becoming more callous and crowded, more foreign, around main characters who invariably aren’t. This tradition is part of some of my favorite works of science fiction, and it has always given me a pang that the imagination can accommodate a shift in the cultural baseline, can even find cool in it, as long as it’s understood to signify a loss of soul.
But the sun-dappled exurban setting of After Yang, the exquisite new film from writer-director Kogonada, is awash with natural textures as much as new technology. It’s such an inverse of a warrenlike sci-fi megalopolis that it would come across as a rebuke to the underlying panic in cyberpunk if the movie showed any inclination to argue. The general Asian inflection of its near-future is intensely lived in and unfussy, neither orientalist cosplay nor an invasive force. Its characters wear mandarin collars and seungbok-inspired vests alongside band T-shirts, and they move through spaces bright with glass façades and blond wood that fall somewhere between Japanese minimalism and Scandinavian modernism, accented with the glow of Akari lamps and cutting-edge sconces. When Jake (a melancholy Colin Farrell), the tea-shop owner at the center of the film, stops by a noodle bar on a break from his quest to repair the family’s android, he calls his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and realizes they’re both eating ramen, though the synchronicity doesn’t quite mitigate her exasperation with him in the moment.
The film’s vision isn’t utopian, for all its warm and inviting nature. There’s a gingerliness to its world, a feeling of skin still pink from healing. The only inkling we get as to why is a passing shot of a corkboard in the space of a conspiracy-theory-prone repairman (Ritchie Coster) who rants about foreign spyware. It’s plastered with signage from a concluded but apparently none-too-distant war with China, with flyers calling out “yellow peril” and proclaiming there “ain’t no yellow in the red, white, and blue.” Jake and Kyra’s daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), is Chinese, and like the progressive parents that they are, they purchased Yang (Justin H. Min) from a company that sells cyborgs programmed to help adoptees connect with their birth culture. Well, they actually purchased him refurbished at a discount from an unaffiliated retailer who was less than truthful about his history, as Jake discovers when trying to get Yang fixed after he, to Mika’s distress, becomes unresponsive. In flashbacks, we come to understand that while Yang might have initially been around to spout what the characters have taken to calling “Chinese fun facts,” he became part of their family in ways none of them entirely appreciated until he was gone.
Adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, After Yang is an almost painfully tender movie about the life and death of a robot, but it’s also about what life and death mean to a technological being and a human one. In the last act, a character named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson) offhandedly mentions that Yang used to ask her what makes someone Asian. Maybe, she speculates, he was looking for ways to help Mika, though the query seems just as applicable to himself. Does Asianness apply to a synthetic creation simply because it was designed to resemble an Asian male? Is Yang Chinese because he was created as a receptacle for Chinese historical trivia, language, food, and customs? After Yang has the structure of a subdued mystery, though at its core it has no answers to these, or any, questions. Instead, it provides a slowly dawning and utterly devastating understanding of the hidden richness of its title character’s existence. When Jake discovers, with the help of a technological-museum curator played by Sarita Choudhury, that Yang had the ability to create and retain brief memories, he begins exploring the moments Yang chose to remember, unlocking flashes of Mika as a baby, of Yang looking at himself in the mirror, of the trees in the breeze, and then going back further, from a period before Yang’s arrival at their house.
After Yang is the second feature from Kogonada, a Korean American video essayist turned filmmaker whose pseudonym is a nod to Kogo Noda, Yasujirō Ozu’s writing partner. Kogonada debuted with 2017’s Columbus and directed four episodes of the upcoming series adaptation of the novel Pachinko. His well-documented love of Ozu means the Japanese master is inevitably the first touchstone cited in his work, and traces of his influence are all over After Yang — Kogonada even makes use of Ozu’s habit of having characters deliver dialogue directly at the camera and then turns it into the visual language of the video technology the characters use to call one another. But After Yang also brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s sad-robot epic A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which also deals in the idea of mechanical family members, in its case a child programmed to love with a helplessness that comes to frighten and repel his owners. Yang, though, manages to create the capacity to love within himself, organically and without intent, crafting it from connection as well as from loss. In the same way that his reflections on his identity mirror the constructed qualities of race, the question of whether Yang transcended his own nature (the way David in A.I. yearns to) feels beside the point. “We always assume that other beings would want to be human,” Ada says. “What’s so great about being human?” As After Yang attests, you don’t have to be human to appreciate the world and what’s in it.
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