Five years after Kogonada’s debut Columbus, he’s back at Sundance with his sophomore feature fresh from its Cannes premiere last July. In a more ambitious artistic endeavor, Kogonada continues to improve himself with After Yang.
After Yang is adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang”, a sci-fi tale set in the future populated with robotic “tecnhobeings,” artificial intelligence, and clones that coexist with humans. The film focuses on a progressive family, Jake and Kyra (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith), with their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). They purchased a “certified refurbished” helper android named Yang (Justin H. Min) from a now-defunct store that provided companions for adopted Asian children to teach them their culture. Yang and Mika had an inseparable sister-brother bond until Yang abruptly shuts down.
Sci-fi films tend to be works of grandeur, flexing VFX technology and how far can it go with the costume and production design. After Yang isn’t your typical sci-fi. With Kogonada’s sensibilities, he only subtly gives us a peek at what this future is as he focuses on the emotional truths of his source. He sees the ordinary in the not-so-ordinary world of Weinstein’s story. Koganada as a director is gentle and quiet with his exhibition and After Yang exudes that as it ponders on the meaning of existence. Like his debut Columbus, Kogonoda sees the beauty in the everyday. It’s a posthumanist setting informed by the heart of humanism. Yang, through his stored memories, teaches Jake and the audience what it means to be human, and to never take the moments that pass you by for granted.
Besides its underlying theme, After Yang is visually beautiful with its own rendition of the future. It is set in a distant time but still felt very familiar and not in-your-face like most sci-fi films. The opening title sets a lively dance sequence that establishes the futuristic premise of the film with its song choice and costumes. Performances from the cast are wonderful: Farrell is effective with the coldness and emotional distance of Jake, as well as in his eventual sincerity for his life and family. Tjandrawidjaja is a delight as Mika; she also knows how to strike a nerve through her tantrums over the loss of Yang. Justin H. Min delivers a heartwarming performance as the titular android Yang. He is mesmerizing, grounded, and layered, showing the complexity of his character.
After Yang leaves you with a lot to ponder and a heart that is weary from the emotional journey. Kogonada understands what it means to be human and sees it in the every day, making him one of the most empathetic directors out there.