“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”
Filmmaker Kogonada’s “After Yang” was selected as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s “Best of the Fest.” These are films that are chosen to make their Sundance premiere even as they may have already been shown at another festival. In this case, “After Yang” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, but this year’s Sundance panel decided it was strong enough to be included.
In his second feature film (after his wonderful 2017 dramatic debut, “Columbus”), Kogonada goes in a completely different direction, science fiction.
Much like his first feature, “After Yang” finds Kogonada’s characters navigating philosophical quandaries of existence.
Colin Farrell (undervalued as a dramatic actor) and Jodie Turner-Smith (an actress to follow) are Jake and Kyra, the parents to their adopted daughter Mika (a natural Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).
As adoptive parents, Jake and Kyra wanted Mika to grow up knowing her Chinese heritage so they got her a “technosapien” named Yang (Justin H. Min). Although an artificial intelligence, Mika has grown to love Yang and considers him family.
As the film begins, Yang breaks down and the amount of money and red tape it will take to (maybe) fix him seem impossible. As Jake tries to figure out what to do, time becomes of the essence. Yang will begin to decompose after a while.
Jake goes off the grid to find ways to reactivate Yang. He is given a cube containing Yang’s memories. By searching through the memories, Jake discovers new levels to Yang’s existence, as the android may have had more human qualities and a selfhood that no one could have imagined.
Based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” Kogonada’s film is a mannered take on subjectivity and what it means to feel.
Benjamin Loeb’s camerawork is inventive, he created different aspect ratios depending on the character and the moment. Loeb keeps his camera still, shooting in wide frames and using slow pans to achieve the meditative aura typified in Kogonada’s work.
The film also explores how attached we have become to our technology. In this increasingly digital world, humans are losing the importance and value of intimacy. But Kogonada doesn’t judge, as the film also argues that there are instances where technology can bring someone closer to a person through great wealth of knowledge. This film dares to challenge whether something material could evolve to the level of being able to care for us. One’s identity is often more than we could imagine.
As in his first film, Kogonada finds poetry in this piece. Jake’s understanding of the importance Yang played in their lives widens as he relives his own moments with him through these memories. Jake discovers how Yang was as human as any member of his family. The ambient score from Asia Matsumiya (with a haunting theme written by Ryuchi Sakamoto) gently guides Jake and the audience through this journey of discovery.
If there is fault to be found in the character of Kara not having enough weight, the gravitas of the screenplay and direction gives the film its emotional strength.
“After Yang” is a profound film. It is a film of loss but not in the defeatist sense. For Jake, loss leads to a rediscovery. It speaks to how all of us need to recognize and acknowledge one’s identity. Our truth (in our culture, in our heritage, in our souls) lies within.
Life can be a struggle to find ourselves, but, my, what a beautiful struggle.