After Yang – Review

After Yang is now streaming on Showtime and playing in select theaters.

By Palmer Rubin

I don’t know if any filmmaker has used a TikTok dance challenge to set up his inciting incident before, but I’m glad it was Kogonada who decided to become the trailblazer.

I still need to see Columbus, but I know Kogonada through his video essay work. If you’ve ever seen those compilations comparing different shots from things with some pleasant instrumentals, whether it be colors or themes or motifs, you have him to thank. He’s one of those guys who influenced a lot, along with Tony Zhou and so many others.

This one is simple: the family’s robot/clone thing begins to shut down, they have to rush to fix him so they can have him keep taking care of their adopted daughter. In the process, they discover that the titular Yang may have had a life and experiences beyond being her nanny. It’s a loving but tense family dynamic, with Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith as mostly absent parents who love their daughter but can’t be bothered to take too much part in her actual development. The strongest relationship is between Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja (in her film debut) as their daughter Mika and Justin H. Min as the titular Yang. They can’t fathom why Mika misses Yang so badly as they rush to see if he can be restored in time, why she seems so ambivalent towards the two of them. They mean her no harm, and yet their casual neglect of her and her wellbeing has taken a toll, that only takes Yang’s threatened existence to cast into doubt. Farrell and Turner-Smith are not shown as explicitly evil people, because they’re not. They seem to have only had a child because they were expected to and not because they really wanted to. There is a tangible but distant love there, even if expressed more strongly by Yang than anyone else. As we get to see Min at work, the genuine warmth and care he shows in a role that’s mostly fragments of his past self and uncertain future, the emotional core of the movie makes itself clear. As we watch the parents snoop more into Yang’s former life to unravel the mystery of his existence (he was bought “refurbished,” as they keep saying as they navigate the bureaucratic process of getting him repaired), they become voyeurs to his life the way we do. All this done to composed and painterly compositions that prove how much Kogonada has translated his video essay work to his work as a filmmaker.

There’s not a lot I can say because it’s one you need to go in blind for. What I love is how delicately it unravels, no one outright antagonistic but still showing imbalances of power and the secret lives we never expect anyone else to learn about. We feel like onlookers into Yang’s life and our assumptions about his inherent humanity. He loves and feels love intensely, perhaps more intensely than any human. What’s left of him, at least to start, are the snapshots that make up our own lives. Eventually, the excellent Haley Lu Richardson (of the better-than-expected Unpregnant, which I got to review a while back) factors in as a potential answer to the question of Yang that this family needs answered. Yang could be most closely compared to a replicant from the Blade Runner duology, a mixture of flesh and cybernetics, and yet is shown to be more human than the humans we see in this narrative. Big difference is there’s no action and the science fiction elements are mostly circumstantial. This is a far more introspective and slow-moving picture than that. I say that as person who likes the Blade Runner films in spite of their issues: this feels like a whole different flavor that asks similar questions with different answers than you’d expect.

The way it addresses the concept of memory brings snapshots of my own: The date I went on last year to a boardwalk. The warmth of hands held together. Sitting around a campfire. The warmth of other people. The first good meal in a month. The joy of companionship. The snapshots are all that will be left of me, and you.

I give After Yang an A-.

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