Runtime: 96 minutes
Writers: Kogonada, based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin Min, Ritchie Coster, Clifton Collins, Jr., Haley Lu Richardson
By Joan Amenn
“After Yang” (2021) is a subtle, quiet little science-fiction film that has a plot as open to rumination and interpretation as a summer knit sweater is open to warm breezes. It is a welcome exploration of what constitutes being a living being as well as a member of a family but does not spell out in large letters what it wants you to believe about either question.
Colin Farrell is stunning as Jake, the head of a family that has adopted a daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) from China. For the sake of the child’s emotional development, Jake and his wife, Kyra (the radiant Jodie Turner-Smith) have also purchased a “techno-sapien” companion to help in educating her about her ancestral traditions. Yang, (Justin Min) is as devoted to the little girl as any big brother could possibly be, if you can overlook that he has a warranty. The film explores the question of whether androids not only dream but remember and if they do, is that sufficient to consider them “human.”
Not as invested in special effects as “Blade Runner” (1982) but with similar overall themes, “After Yang” also has some gently humorous scenes. When Yang develops an issue in his functions, Jake is seen trying to bring him in for repairs. The analogy drawn to modern cellphones and how certain retailers try to strong arm owners into more expensive upgrades is suggested without it being too obvious, which only makes it funnier. Jake is a purveyor of various loose teas and a scene in his shop with a customer who is frustrated by his seeming lack of modern conveniences shows Farrell’s ability with comedic timing. It is a nice touch in a story that is mostly about loss, grief, and acceptance.
Director Kogonada keeps his cameras in tight focus on the little family and their lives together with an incredible opening scene showing them competing in a virtual dance competition. It is an amazing way of conveying how this futuristic world is both interconnected by technology and isolated by it at the same time, since the contestants are eliminated via computer judgement with no further feedback given as to why. On the other hand, Yang shows great tenderness and empathy to Mika and she is deeply attached to him.
Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001) explored the impact of technology on human relationships within a family on a much grander scale, but “After Yang” does not suffer for its more intimate setting. It actually helps draw the audience closer into Jake and Kyra’s debates on how they should be parents to Mika and makes their decisions more relatable, particularly in how the little girl acquires a new goldfish. “After Yang” has many such moments of warmth and rueful tenderness. As Yang tells Kyra, “What a caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” “After Yang” is not an action-packed science fiction story but it is a study in humanism and a meditation on how love echoes through time.
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