What does it all mean? Life, death, memory, family, love, loss and time all unfold gently around each other in Kogonada’s beautifully wrought sci-fi – a movie that also opens with a 5-minute shot of Colin Farrell playing the Just Dance video game with his adopted robot son.
Contradictions abound in After Yang, which is full of questions without answers and sadness without release. As delicate as a whisper, it’s often more metaphysical tone poem than straight-up sci-fi, yet the whole thing hangs heavily on a thread of future-tech cyborg storytelling.
Farrell, then, is Jake – a tea shop owner in a soft-focus future where everything looks like the inside of a Muji store. Jodie Turner-Smith is Jake’s wife, Kyra, and Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Yang (Justin H. Min) are their two adopted children. Also, Yang is the aforementioned robot.
Bought by Jake and Kyra as an instant older brother for Mika, Yang serves as a cultural bridge for the Chinese-born toddler – helping her to understand her roots. The problem comes when Yang starts questioning his own sense of self, raising questions about the morality of artificial intelligence alongside stickier issues of consciousness, purpose and what it means for any of us to be alive.
And that’s just the start. When Yang breaks down, Jake goes to get him fixed and finds a hidden chip inside his head that lets him replay short snippets of memories that gradually open the story even wider. Hints of past lives and loves send Jack on a detective mission to learn more about Yang’s origins, and most of the film plays in flashback (and memory bank TikTok montage) as we uncover deeper layers of truth and meaning.
Flowing smoothly to Aska Matsumiya’s ambient synth score (and occasionally to Mitski’s ‘Glide’, which becomes the film’s main theme), After Yang feels effortless. Directed with gentle grace by critic and essayist Kogonada (who also made the architecturally perfect Columbus in 2017), it’s not a film to rush watching or easily forget – even as it niggles with how uncomfortable everything becomes.
Self-driving cars and the occasional glimpse of a futuristic cityscape remind you that you’re watching science-fiction, but After Yang is about as far from every other robot story as it can get. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence is an obvious touchstone, but Kogonada is clearly drawing his own inspirations from something more spiritual and fragile.
This is bleak, dystopian stuff (full of warm interiors that are all oddly cold), but the point here isn’t to make Jake and Kyra’s family appear distant. This is all of our stories – and Farrell and Turner-Smith do a brilliant job of anchoring everything in deep emotion.
Genuinely moving from the very beginning, expect to leave After Yang in a flood of tears. Expect, also, to spend the rest of the night questioning all the things that no one really likes thinking about. And, of course, to want to keep rewatching that dance scene on repeat.
- Director: Kogonada
- Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min
- Release date: September 22 (in cinemas and on Sky Cinema)