After Yang (2021)

Koganada | 1hr 36min

Memories never play out linearly in After Yang, and why should they? They are simply fragments of the past, brought to the surface in moments of deep reflection with the hope that, in connecting them to the present, they might reveal something significant about us. That is at least the purpose they serve for this family of four, consisting of parents Jake and Kyra, their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika, and an older robotic son, Yang. He may have initially been bought to connect Mika to her heritage by delivering fun facts about Chinese culture, but when he breaks down it doesn’t take long for the family’s disappointment to become a melancholy grief. Leaving nothing behind but his memory bank that recorded only a few seconds of footage each day, Yang becomes the subject of Koganada’s poignant meditations, pondering those complex lives that exist just beyond the scope of our periphery.

The quiet, futuristic world that Yang and his family live in is a strangely elusive one. Perhaps a grander scope would have revealed a slightly more utopian version of Blade Runner, but as it is Koganada simply leaves us to dwell in the tender intimacy of homes, shops, offices, and cars, where small pieces of this advanced culture seep into everyday lives. Explanations aren’t given as to why there are pot plants growing inside vehicles, or how video calls seem to transmit through invisible cameras, nor are they needed. The technology of this world is instead broadly underlined by an organic tenderness, seeking to reconcile the cold sheen of glass and metal with gentle humanistic malleability.

Subtle world building through the mise-en-scène – the living plants in self-driving cars offer an enchanting touch.

Perhaps “humanistic” is the wrong word to use though. After Jake wonders whether Yang was happy being artificial, another character disdainfully responds, “That’s such a human thing to ask, isn’t it? You always assume other beings want to be human.” Even as Jake and his wife, Kyra, probe deeper into Yang’s memories and discover pieces of him they might identify with, there also emerge components of his identity that are irreconcilably unique. Where most people live only one life, Yang appears to have lived many, hidden away from his family’s view. Or perhaps the truth was always easily accessible, and they just never asked.

Wonderful editing in these memory montages, match cutting between two low angles of leaves and feathers tossed in the air.
This could be a Kieslowski cutaway – using glass to refract light in these beautiful compositions, much like the prism of subjective memory.

Inside his memory bank, each fragmented recollection manifests as a single tiny star surrounded by millions of others, all of which are suspended within a dark forest. Just as those shining specks of light make up an entire galaxy, so too do these small, mundane moments make up Yang’s entire existence, expanding far off into the distance. When played in succession, they form delicate montages, providing glimpses into the most mundane joys – a rock concert, the rustling leaves of a tree, a toad, Mika playing by herself, and so on.

Each memory fragment is a star in a galaxy full of them. Stunning metaphysical imagery.

When it comes to the flashbacks of human memories, quantity is exchanged for focus. Jake, Kyra, and Mika each take ownership of individual sequences that recall their past conversations with Yang, and although we do not cover nearly as much ground here as we do in the memory bank, we do gain much deeper insight into their individual relationship with the techno-sapien. These are some of the longest scenes of the film, but Koganada still presents them just as abstractly as Yang’s memories. Time doubles back on itself as lines of dialogue repeat over unmoving mouths, and settings also seem to shift unexpectedly, revealing these nostalgic ruminations not as accurate historical renderings, but rather subjective reconstructions, prone to the whims of present-day emotions.

It is Jake’s flashback that is particularly revealing, playing out a conversation about his passion for tea that might as well allegorically stand in for the value of memory, wrapped up in history and culture though with its own distinct flavour. “You can taste a place, a time,” he expounds, while also voicing his admiration for a man he watched in a documentary who was on an elusive hunt for rare teas in China. The metaphor is subtle but potent, especially when Yang expresses a wish that he too could form as deep a connection to something as Jake does. What lingers for us in long, impassioned embraces merely flits by for Yang, covering a broader scope though without the same specific attachment.

Questions of artificial intelligence and humanity probed throughout this narrative, and reflected in the visuals.

As we are reminded though, it is a human trait to pity that which is not like us. There is no reason for us to believe that Yang’s life was half-lived, nor that he was anything less than content. The isolation he feels need not be something shied away from, but something that can be relished for its soothing silence, and Koganada adopts an Ozu-like temperament in visually realising this. Static shots peer through the doorways, curtains, and hallways of the family home, often on the other side of large glass windows which keep us ever so slightly distanced from the characters. In the delicate colours that light up these spaces, whether they are green streetlamps bouncing off car windows or the living room’s dim, golden illumination, Koganada offers a tender balance to his otherwise seclusive cinematography, offsetting any harshness with a calming tranquillity.

Reflections in glass, doubling images to create meaningful subtext.

Even as his characters wrestle with a long, drawn-out grief that evolves through multiple stages, Koganada never falters in weaving in that light stylistic touch. To call it a celebration of humanity isn’t entirely incorrect, though it only paints half a picture of what he achieves here. After Yang is a commemoration of being, human and non-human, studied and savoured through the refractive lens of memory where old ideas find new life in the present.

Characters framed in isolating compositions behind glass windows, kept at a distance from the camera. Very much an Ozu influence.

After Yang is currently playing in theatres.


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