Directed by Kogonada. Distributed by A24.
Written by Michael Clawson
Partway through “After Yang,” Kogonada’s sleek, futuristic sci-fi follow-up to “Columbus” (2016), Colin Farrell’s Jake sits at a noodle restaurant by himself, speaking to his wife through an advanced form of video chat. “How’s your ramen?” his wife Kyra (Jodie-Turner Smith) asks. “It’s soothing,” Jake replies. Soothing. Not a bad word to describe the effect Kogonada strives for with a movie that, despite some of its finicky visual detail and rigidity, has the relaxing appeal of a placid body of water.
A leap forward from the time period of “Columbus” but a continuation of that film’s measured pacing and formal cleanliness, “After Yang” centers on a family navigating loss, but unfolds as a contemplative kind of a mystery. As we meet Jake, Kyra, and their young, adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the fourth member of their household essentially makes them a family of four. Yang, brought to life by a lightly, aptly mannered Justin H. Min, is a techno-sapien: a robot assistant visually indistinguishable from a human, which Jake and Kyra purchased primarily for it to educate their daughter about her Chinese heritage. When Yang abruptly stops functioning, Jake goes looking for someone to repair him, but the minor quest to revive the robot that his daughter practically considered a sibling becomes a quietly emotional inquiry into just how human Yang might have really been.
Having bought Yang as a refurbished model of robot (though Jake is sure to mention repeatedly, and defensively, that Yang’s refurbishment was “certified”), Jake’s search for someone to fix Yang takes him off the beaten path. A cynical handyman opens Yang up and spills conspiracy theories about how he suspects such robots are being leveraged by manufacturers to invade people’s privacy and harvest their personal data. A museum curator’s look at Yang’s high-tech insides marks a vital discovery that leaves her wanting to put Yang’s corpse on display for the public: Yang, she tells Jake, was creating memories, something techno-sapiens were not thought capable of. The film’s most visually dazzling flourishes come when Jake dons the small, oval-shaped glasses that allow him to see and sift through Yang’s memories. They appear on-screen as a constellation of glowing, celestial orbs set against a jet-black background, as if the memories made up a cosmos all of their own.
Whether the film finds Jake at home pondering his learnings or is following him on his inquisitive excursions, Kogonada’s direction remains gentle and fastidious, accented by the lilting rise and fall of the piano in ASKA and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score. The stillness of his camera draws attention to the geometry of his compositions, and to the tasteful, heavily Asian-influenced production design. It’s suggested that the tea shop Jake runs is not exactly booming, but you wouldn’t know it from the impeccably hip décor and furnishings of his home. While the surface serenity of “After Yang” and its questions about what it means to be human are stirring, its fashionable construction does sometimes feel precious.
But even if it is over-refined, the film nonetheless strikes a chord and provokes reflection. As he virtually explores Yang’s memory, Jake is routinely met with the image of a short, blonde-haired young woman, who he surmises Yang felt something like romantic affection towards. Played by “Columbus” actress Hayley Lu Richardson, her performance is one that carries both mysteriousness and poignancy.