Review by Sadbh Boylan
In one of After Yang’s (Kogonada, 2022) most touching scenes, Justin H. Min’s ‘technosapien’ Yang quotes Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “what the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” His human owner-slash-guardian, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) asks if Yang believes the same logic applies to humans when they die. He is unsure, and questions whether he is programmed to be able to think about the end in such a way; Kyra wonders if it’s even in human’s best interest that they have this ability. It’s a standout scene that exemplifies After Yang’s greatest strength: examining the human experience of life, death, and everything in between, through the guise of a being that is almost human, but not quite.
Based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein, After Yang is the brainchild of writer, director, and editor Kogonada. It follows weary father Jake (Colin Farrell) as he endeavours to repair his family’s malfunctioning android, Yang. On the brink of losing Yang, Jake, his wife Kyra, and their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) are left to grapple with a new dynamic as they come to terms with Yang’s unspoken role in their family.
Set in a stylized future painted in neutral tones, After Yang raises questions of ethical technological progress and over-reliance on it, though doesn’t quite probe them as much as one might expect. Likewise, it alludes to cultural identity and intercultural adoption, though the exploration remains largely surface-level. After Yang instead functions best as a story about grief and loss, with a very human sensibility despite pivoting on an artificial being. The most poignant moments excel as reflections of grief, love, and loss, delving deep into the defining features of the human experience with a delicate but effective hand. Yang himself acts effectively as both foil and mirror to his human companions, offering ripe grounds to explore what it means to be human.
Despite clocking in at a timely ninety-six minutes, After Yang does trod a little slowly. It demands a degree of patience from its viewers, with gratuitous establishing shots and quiet moments of stillness aplenty. Still, the film rewards those who wait, with emotionally rich and existential scenes that elevate it above the standard ‘this could be us’ sci-fi. The young Tjandrawidjaja is a stand-out, while Min also makes his short screen time count and lends an ‘uncanny valley’ effect to droid Yang. In spite of the film’s outlandish setting, it is easy to identify with the themes of grief and loss that echo through After Yang. The strong cast bolsters a thought-provoking script, providing sufficient emotional beats to make the slow pace worthwhile. Although it demands a certain mindset and patience that precludes casual viewing, those who are willing to give it a go are sure to be pleasantly surprised by its strong emotional resonance that would tug at the heart of even an almost-human droid.