Review: ‘After Yang’ explores humanity

Image of little girl talking to her dad
Yang, a humanoid robot, is a little girl’s faithful companion before tragically malfunctioning in director Kogonada’s newest film. (Photo courtesy of A24)

“After Yang” takes the audience to a place that feels both before and after our time.

From powerhouse production company A24, South Korean filmmaker Kogonada’s second feature film, “After Yang,” released on March 4 starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Haley Lu Richardson. Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the film may be the best sci-fi flick of the year. 

Written, directed and edited by Kogonada, the film follows Jake (Farrell) and Kyra (Turner-Smith) and their son and human android named Yang, who they bought to help their daughter Mika (Tjandrawidjaja) stay connected to her Chinese ancestry. Touched by themes of adoption, mortality and loneliness, the film also explores artificial intelligence and the concept of man versus machine.

When Yang malfunctions and shuts down, repairing him turns out to be a tedious journey — not as simple as going to a local Best Buy — as it’s revealed that he is a refurbished, secondhand model and the store that he was bought from, Second Siblings, has gone out of business. Although futuristic in the existence of androids that serve as human helpers based on the needs of the family, the film focuses on contemporary concepts of grief, loss and uncertainty, and reflects on what it means to be human. 

The dialogue is littered with cogitating questions such as “What makes someone Asian?” and “Is life the something, followed by the nothing?” One of Kogonada’s strengths is that he highlights the everyday conversation that may seem unnecessary to film, but this paired with deep moments brought on by asking such intrusive questions makes for a dynamic and artistic experience. 

The dance sequence that appears as the credits roll at the beginning is an unexpected element of the film but adds an exciting texture that reels the audience in further, all the way until Mika’s endearing vocal performance at the finale. Moments like these, that add an interesting but fitting texture to the film, are intricately crafted. 

If you’re looking for a sci-fi film filled with fast action scenes and fighter pilots, this one isn’t for you. The pacing is slow, but take the time to sit through the narrative and you’ll be rewarded with what feels like a close whisper of childhood reminiscences, folded into stunning cinematography and a visually engrossing color palette. With the perfect combination of steady, well-framed close-ups to represent modern video calling intertwined with freehand, shaky scenes in the forest, the film promises to give the audiences the space to sit and ponder, similar to many of the characters throughout the film.

While there is CGI involved, it doesn’t feel jarringly separate from the film’s painterly aesthetic. Apart from cinematography, from mixes of organic textures and technology and cool tones with hints of warmth, the production design and costuming both stand out as extremely intricate. Every element of the film has been done with care, and this makes its slower pacing still captivating, rather than boring or monotonous. There could certainly be more chemistry between the cast, but Farrell cements himself as a multifaceted actor as he navigates the grief of losing his son and the loneliness around not being able to fix him or move forward. 

Watch “After Yang,” one of A24’s best films till date, now on Showtime or in theaters. It’s a sublime ode to loss and reclamation, what it means to be Asian, what it means to be human, the transcendence of parenthood and the mysteries of memory and connection.