Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) have purchased an android, Yang (Justin H. Min), to help educate their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) about her Chinese heritage. The way Jake says this when he talks to other people gives you the feeling that Mika is not the only Chinese orphan adopted by non-Chinese couples and that there is a notable absence of Chinese culture in this world. Not that there is an absence of Chinese heritage, design, and ephemera, just that China, as a country and as a people, is somehow absent. No word as to what happened, but a few clues sprinkled throughout After Yang betray something cataclysmic.
Is this the near future? Maybe. It certainly looks like it could be. The technology is familiar, only more advanced. The interactions among people are similar, only more detached. There’s a lot in After Yang that feels detached. But more clues suggest this story might not occur in the near future, but something much further down the line. And if that’s the case, we don’t have much new to look forward to—other than sleeker versions of the technology we have now.
If movies could be touched, After Yang would feel delicate. It’s not, really; it just looks that way for the first two-thirds of director Kogonada’s quiet mediation on loss and memory. A few hints here and there suggest After Yang is as durable as that apple peel at the end of Yasujirô Ozu’s Late Spring. The peel makes an appearance in After Yang, but as an orange, snatched from Yang’s memories.
Memory plays a significant part in After Yang, which Kogonada based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang” from the 2016 collection Children of the New World. Children play a crucial role in After Yang. At least two of them are clones, and there’s plenty more out there in the world. Or city. Jake travels considerably in search of answers but doesn’t seem to go anywhere beyond his hometown of Chinatown. He runs a tea shop there—a tea shop with no customers. Kyra works primarily from home, and Jake meets a museum curator at one point (Sarita Choudhury) and an underground android mechanic (Ritchie Coster). Work seems much different in this future than it is today. Less hectic, at the least.
If there’s any part of After Yang that feels false, it’s that the future is quiet. Basing things off of where we are and where we’ve been, I suspect that the future will be an incessant cacophony of dings, beeps, and chirps as every last piece of information pour into our lives with the appropriate amount of advertisement and targeted marketing. In After Yang, parents hire androids to raise and educate their children. I suspect that we’ll hire them to answer our emails.
Back to Yang’s memories: They are quick snatches of life, moments similar to the ones the souls at the way station in After Life cling to, and the ones Joe and 22 latch on to in Soul. I don’t think one movie influences the other here, just that they traffic in similar lanes. Which I don’t think is Kogonada’s game with After Yang. The last moment seems to have something else on its mind, which might explain why I’m having a tough time surrendering myself to the material. But Kogonada left the door open a crack, just enough for a second time through. Only the really good movies do that.
After Yang (2021)
Written and directed by Kogonada
Based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein
Produced by Andrew Goldman, Caroline Kaplan, Paul Mezey, Theresa Park
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin H. Min, Ritchie Coster, Sarita Choudhury, Clifton Collins Jr.
A24, Rated PG, Running time 101 minutes, Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, July 8, 2021.