By Ed Symkus
Korean writer-director Kogonada’s meditation on life and how it’s lived is dreamy, haunting, profound, and deeply moving.
After Yang is screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and on Showtime.
It’s been a while since a science fiction film that attempted to reach philosophical heights regarding the human condition really hit home for me. Two that come to mind are Gattaca (1997), which questioned how a normal man dealt with a society that demanded genetic perfection, and Her (2013), the story of an artificial intelligence program that gains consciousness and begins to understand the concept of love.
After Yang, based on the 2016 Alexander Weinstein short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” would fit comfortably on a triple feature with those two films in that it involves artificial intelligence, love, and the pursuit of perfection. It’s also dreamy, haunting, profound, and deeply moving.
Jake and Kyra (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) are a happily married couple living very busy lives sometime in the near future. Actually, they’re a bit too busy, bordering on being workaholics — she spends too much time at her office, he would rather be at his tea shop than at home. At the film’s opening, Jake and Kyra have adopted a little Asian girl — Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) — and to make up for their absence, they’ve purchased a robot named Yang (Justin Min) to keep Mika company, help raise her, and educate her in Asian culture. But he’s not just a “robot.” He’s referred to as a techno-sapien, completely human in appearance and behavior.
The good news is that Yang has been doing an excellent job, and Mika adores him, pretty much accepting him as an older brother. The bad news is that a few minutes into the film, Yang has something approximating a short circuit, and stops functioning. An unspoken problem that immediately arises is how will Jake and Kyra continue their lifestyles without the aid of Yang. Mika is more verbal in her reaction: She freaks out over the situation. Things only get more difficult.
Though it’s never mentioned how long Yang has been with the family, it’s quickly revealed that he wasn’t new when they bought him; he was a certified refurbished model. The questions start flying: Is he still under warranty? Should Jake bring him to an illegal fix-it shop to have him repaired? How about if they just recycle his parts and get a new model? How will little Mika take all of this?
Writer-director Kogonada (Columbus) keeps the pace slow, infusing the film with quiet, intense discussions between Jake and Kyra about what to do, and letting long silences play out, accompanied by close-ups of concerned faces.
The decision to bring Yang to an unsavory fix-it shop adds additional wrinkles to an already complicated situation. The proprietor Russ (Ritchie Coster) says that he’s not allowed to “tamper with the core interior” of any robots, but he’d be happy to repair and replace any parts that are in need of service. Alas, the problem with Yang is in his core.
In a radical departure from the Weinstein short story, Kogonada’s adaptation explores the characters’ perceptions of the rights and wrongs of the situation. Then it takes things a substantial step further by introducing the idea that techno-sapiens are geared to record a few seconds of what they see and hear each day to allow lab technicians to understand what their inventions consider to be memorable.
A portion of the film is dedicated to experiencing what Yang has seen and done — through the recorder in his eyes — even before he came to live with Jake, Kyra, and Mika. Remember, he wasn’t new, and Yang has a past.
It’s at this point that questions on how we live our lives and how something like artificial life fits into our world come to the fore. Various ethical issues make their way into the script and an air of tranquility materializes — much of it due to the (mostly) soft, shimmering, elegiac score and the reserved performances from Farrell and Turner-Smith. Near the end, with the introduction of an enigmatic character named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), Kogonada effortlessly transforms After Yang into a mystery. More good news: Everything that’s brought up is resolved.
Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. He went to Woodstock, is a fan of Harry Crews, Sax Rohmer, and John Wyndham, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.