When it comes to science fiction in films, rarely are they as understated as After Yang. Without leaning into thriller or action or horror, director/writer Kogonada weaves a story of grief, family, and reconnection with his science fiction drama After Yang. In Kogonada’s world, androids are seemingly abundant. It’s a near-future where Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) have adopted Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) from China and in order to connect their daughter closer to her Chinese heritage, they’ve purchased an android named Yang (Justin H. Min), referred to as an ‘older sibling’ for Chinese adoptions.
Surprisingly despite their tonal differences After Yang and another Sundance film, Dual, could easily exist in the same universe of androids and clones in a future that is neither post-apocalyptic nor on the brink of tragedy. In fact, the film kicks off with a lively dance number (much like Dual‘s dance number) that brings the whole cast together in a dynamic and exciting way in the guise of a dance competition. From now on, all good sci-fi requires a dance number. But this highlight quickly gives way to the main soul of the story. After the family is eliminated from the competition, Yang malfunctions, and soon Jake, Kyra, and Mika must wrestle with the passing of Yang.
While initially it seems that Jake and Kyra simply view Yang as an android — though Yang calls Mika meimei (mandarin for little sister) and Mika calls Yang gege (mandarin for older brother — it slowly becomes apparent that Yang is much more. As Jake struggles to try and fix Yang, with Mika mourning the loss of her older brother, Yang’s memories are uncovered and Jake becomes privy to snapshots in Yang’s life.
What follows is a poetic and atypical story of grief. While there aren’t any moments of Colin Farrell or Jodie Turner-Smith anguished at the loss of Yang, his death puts a definite strain on their marriage. It brings to light other problems while also revealing how deeply they actually cared about the android in their home. Interestingly, the film also tackles quietly the issue of Asian identity. Both Kogonada and Min are South Korean, and while I initially bristled at the idea of Min playing an android who is supposed to be Chinese, the story tackles the issue deftly and subtly.
As we relive life through Yang’s eyes, we understand his search for identity. In an uncommon story of a robot achieving sentience, Yang does not go out in a blazing rebellious fire of glory. He lead a quiet life and he was loved by his family. In particular, there’s a tender moment when he talks to Jake about tea and Jake offers to teach him, hoping that Yang might one day inherit from him. It’s a quiet moment but lands hard at about halfway through the film. After Yang is subdued and beautifully calming, aesthetically pleasing, and sleek, but it shines the most when it highlights the humanity and connection we all feel with the people we come into contact with.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.