*NOTE: This review was originally part of our Sundance 2022 coverage. A24 will release After Yang in theaters and on Showtime on March 4th.
A futuristic sci-fi movie set in a world where artificial intelligence has become a dominant presence in everyday life. It doesn’t sound like something you would necessarily expect at the Sundance Film Festival, but that’s until you learn the film is by video essayist-turned-director Kogonada. After Yang is the remarkably assured filmmaker’s followup to Columbus, a low-key drama that made me feel more for architecture than ever in my life. With his latest, Kogonada’s sensitive portrayal of an A.I.’s emotional impact on a human family makes this one of the most accomplished movies in the genre tackling this subject.
In a tightly-controlled performance, Colin Farrell stars as Jake, a tea connoisseur who along with his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) purchased Yang (Justin H. Min), a “technosapien” to be the older sibling and cultural link for their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). We don’t realize this at first. An attempted family photo finds Yang being a bit tentative to get in front of the camera. A terrific family dance number, which also serves as Kogonada’s clever way to introduce the full cast, has Yang being slightly out of rhythm. But it isn’t until the android breaks down, entering a coma-like state, that we realize what he is. It’s up to Jake to sort this out and get Yang repaired. Otherwise, what is there to do? Bury him in the backyard like the family pet? No, Yang means more to them than that, doesn’t he?
After Yang is a natural followup to Columbus, a film which used the unique architecture in Columbus, Indiana (seriously, look that place up) to tell a story about human connection, those we forge naturally and those that are built from the ground up. Kogonada is exploring a similar theme here, albeit with sensitivity towards the A.I, which is something we have seen rarely, but recently in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. As Jake travels from place to place looking for ways to repair the synthetic, he discovers there was more to Yang than anyone ever knew. The natural questions arise, such as “What does it mean to be human?”, and to Kogonada’s credit there is no real answer. A better question emerges, as well, “What’s so good about being human?”, asks another character with a deep well of affection for Yang. Why would a technosapien desire to be a human being? This isn’t Pinocchio where the answers are obvious. For someone like Yang, there’s a lot more going on underneath the hood than just Chinese factoids. He ponders things that others don’t consider, such as the reason he is meant to be Chinese. He’s never been to China, so how does that make him Chinese?
We’ve never been anything but human, how are we to know if it’s what others should aspire to?
Like Kogonada’s previous film, After Yang is very deliberate in its steps and the pace can lull you to sleep when revelations are thin. But the mysteries do emerge and add depth, not only to the world at large but to the many lives of Yang. Haley Lu Richardson, breakout of Kogonada’s Columbus, returns in a small role as Ada, a barista whose story unfolds in fulfulling layers. Sarita Choudhury plays a tech whiz who unlocks the potential in Yang’s memory core, allowing Jake to delve into his memories through what appear to be swimming goggles. When he logs in, it’s like Jake is staring into the deep void of space.
I’m not sure if Kogonada’s films will ever connect with the mainstream moviegoer, even with the star power After Yang brings to bear. Probably not, and that’s a shame. Truly humanist filmmakers like him deserve to be seen, and after just two films Kogonada has established himself as one of the best, right up there with Hirokazu Koreeda, Mike Mills, and Yasujirō Ozu.