What is memory, exactly? We think we know, but do we really? Are memories the product of living in the moment, or can we have them even when we’ve failed to be mindful of whatever present we happen to find ourselves in—and might that even make them more potent, like roadside signs we fail to clock as we drive by, only to catch just in time in the rear-view mirror?
Kogonada’s gorgeous and wistful film After Yang doesn’t answer any of those questions. Maybe it doesn’t even ask them. But it has the strange effect of being both soothing and energizing: at the end, you may feel you’ve just seen a movie that somehow holds elusive answers to some of the bigger questions in life, even though nothing is spelled out too broadly. This film has a hushed, lullaby quality. There is nothing like it, certainly not in the current film landscape, and even though there have been movies about the possible feelings of artificially intelligent beings before—even Steven Spielberg made one—this one feels meditative and fresh. It’s a film to watch when you’re feeling unsettled about things—which may be most of the time these days.
Colin Farrell plays a father, Jake, living in an unspecified future era, in a society of gleaming Emerald City-like domes and skyscrapers that also appears to have left some room for nature, in the form of verdant forests. Jake and his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), have a young daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who is not their biological child. At the time of her birth, they welcomed a fourth member of the family, a “technosapien” named Yang, an android with skin and bones but whose thoughts and feelings are ostensibly pure programming. (He’s played, with a blend of gentle humor and graveness, by Justin H. Min.) Jake and Kyra—who seem to be living off one income, Kyra’s, as Jake runs a tea shop that draws very few customers—bought Yang second-hand, as a means of connecting their daughter with her Chinese heritage. (In his gentle, controlled cadence, Yang is fond—if technosapiens can be fond of anything—of extolling what Mika refers to as “Chinese fun facts.”) But Yang is truly a sibling to Mika; she’s deeply attached to him, and Jake and Kyra feel affection for him too, even though that affection comes brushed with wariness.
Because they know in their hearts, as Mika doesn’t, that Yang is essentially a machine, one that could break down. And very early in the film, he does. Jake knows he’ll have to get Yang repaired quickly, or he’ll begin to decompose; but having been bought used, Yang is out of warranty. As Jake scrambles to find someone capable of fixing the android, and worries about how to break the news to his distraught daughter if he can’t, he comes into possession of something extraordinary: a part embedded in Yang that might be spyware—or, more benignly, simply a repository for Yang’s memories, those human abstractions that, as a techno, he’s not supposed to have.
Jake can view those memories through a Google-glass type device, and what he finds includes images of a mysterious young woman—played with understated intensity by Haley Lu Richardson—and evidence of some emotional trauma. But even more significantly, as he tries to plumb the depths of who Yang really was, the android’s memories trigger his own, putting him in touch with feelings he seems to have forgotten he ever had. (In one of these memories, Yang asks Jake what he likes about tea, drawing out a joyous soliloquy—until that time, all we’ve seen in Jake is worry.) Kyra, too, recalls conversations she had with Yang, one in particular about his butterfly collection. She remembers his quoting Lao Tzu: “What the caterpillar calls the end the rest of the world calls the butterfly.” And so what unfolds in After Yang is not so much an exploration of one android’s cognitive abilities as it is a meditation on how our own lives entwine with those of others, and how the things we leave behind live on in their memories, until they too die—and even so the cosmic whole of our memories endures.
How, exactly, do you make a movie about that? The wonder of it is that Kogonada has. This is only Kogonada’s second fiction feature; his first was the pensive and quietly inventive Columbus, from 2017 (also featuring Richardson), though he has made many documentary shorts. His skills are both subtle and formidable; he uses gentle shifting jump cuts, like a stutter in the brain, to suggest the ways in which human thought refuses to be linear. Yang’s memories are shown as points of light mapped in the sky like stars—a strangely comforting image, hinting that when we die, our memories at least have a place to go, becoming part of constellations we can see.
And what kind of actors do you cast in a movie like this one? Kogonada has found the best, especially Farrell. He’s one of our most tenderly expressive actors, a performer who can, with the merest gesture, drop a sympathetic drawbridge between his anxiety and our own. After Yang invites us to think about big questions that might normally invite melancholy. Yet somehow, Kogonada pulls off the opposite effect. His movie makes us feel less alone, part of a network we can’t fully comprehend from our place on Earth. We’re wired for sadness but also for joy, and even when we forget that, the stars hold it safe like a secret.
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