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‘After Yang’ Film Review: Colin Farrell Rethinks Humanity Through Robot’s Eyes

Kogonada’s sophomore feature explores the future of technology, but always through the prism of the elusive moments of our daily lives

This “After Yang” review was originally published on Jan. 22, 2022 from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

If a day ever comes when social media platform Vine decides to mount a comeback, it should quickly and immediately license “After Yang.” Without exactly trying, South Korean–born American filmmaker Kogonada’s second feature offers a powerful, almost undeniable showcase for the narrative and emotional merits of extreme short-form video content.

The delicately futuristic story of a family sent into a tailspin by the malfunction of its robotic servant and caretaker, “After Yang” examines the way that memory conveys meaning, very often when people absorb or revisit it from a perspective different from the way they originally experienced it. Colin Farrell, Justin H. Min, and Haley Lu Richardson provide different, equally compelling angles from which to view connections in human lives we may not realize are tenuous at best until they’re unable to be reconnected.

Farrell plays Jake, a purveyor of the analog pleasures of tea in a world that’s become so advanced that digital conveniences have become inextricably baked into daily existence. The biggest of those conveniences is “technosapiens,” and in Jake’s home, he and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) purchased the robot Yang (Min, “The Umbrella Academy”) to provide a cultural foundation to comfort their adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, “iCarly”) as she grows up in a home otherwise absent of biologically native influence.

When Yang unexpectedly malfunctions, Jake attempts to get the machine repaired, but quickly realizes that buying a technosapien secondhand was a mistake; the warranty is invalid, and he must find a another solution as Mika becomes increasingly frantic about the absence of her caretaker and companion.

After finding secondhand repairman Russ (Richie Coster, “The Walking Dead”) through his neighbor George (Clifton Collins), Jake eventually meets Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), the curator of a museum focused on technosapiens who explains that Yang contained technology designed not (as Russ conspiratorially believed) to spy on his owners but to capture brief snapshots of what an artificial intelligence would determine to be an important “memory.” Unlocking these clips from Yang’s memory banks, Jake soon finds himself consumed by the machine’s poetic aptitude for capturing the life and experiences of his family.

But after discovering a young woman named Ada (Richardson) repeatedly showing up in these memories, Jake follows a path to discover a secret history for Yang that pre-dates his experiences with his own family, in the process uncovering some subtle but important truths about the relationships that Jake may have neglected in complacent acquiescence to the conveniences that this technological marvel brought to his life.

Adapted from the story “Saying Goodbye To Yang” by Alexander Weinstein, Kogonada’s film examines some of the same ideas as many other films about artificial intelligence, from “A.I.” to “Her,” but hews closer to Jonze than to Spielberg, both in terms of its light sci-fi touch and its more meditative and emotional rather than technological quandaries. An extension of the digital assistants that navigate our vehicles, answer questions on our phones or play music when summoned, Yang becomes the mirror and connective tissue between this family’s experiences and its collective memory, and the clips in his memory form a collage that forces Jake, and eventually Kyra, to realize they’ve been existing instead of living.

That the clips each run just a few seconds, and frequently start or end after the meat of an exchange that must be more carefully recalled, makes them more powerful than if they were first-person home movies by an omniscient technology; in a technologically believable and still somehow gorgeously poetic way, Kogonada creates a virtual universe in Yang’s memory that reveals Jake to himself while cataloguing tiny vignettes whose importance no one, perhaps least of all Yang, quite understood. Bringing Jake’s sleuthing into focus is the discovery he eventually makes about Yang’s existence, which won’t be spoiled here but speaks to a life lived more attentively than by the family to which he was assigned, whether or not it was always done intentionally, as that mirror reflects truths that demand deeper self-examination.

Even a casual search for more detail about Weinstein’s source material suggests a more significant sociocultural context that Kogonada excised for the sake of his own more contemplative narrative, which proves to be a deficiency only inasmuch as the relationship between Farrell and Turner-Smith as spouses raising a Chinese-born daughter prompts questions from an invested audience that never get answered.

Both they and Min as Yang are so good and understated that you want to know more about them, their lives and their experiences, but the film looks at their world more existentially than experientially — which is perhaps the point: There has to be a balance between the interior world of the heart and mind, and the practicalities and permanence of physical interaction, and Yang’s departure from their daily dynamic throws them out of whack.

With a library of video essays about everyone from Wes Anderson to Hirokazu Kore-eda under his belt and another narrative project, “Pachinko,” also set for release in 2022 through Apple TV+, Kogonada has already achieved his own balance between the impressionistic explorations of visionaries and his own world-building as a storyteller. Whether or not you’ve seen his 2017 feature debut “Columbus,” “After Yang” is a real breakthrough kind of work, a film that can inspire the feverish excitement of discovery in moviegoers that are eager for visions (and visionaries), and its early presentation at festivals like Cannes and Sundance makes it feel all the more pregnant with promise.

The control and confidence of its form, paired with an emotionality that is at once effortless and irresistibly powerful, makes the film feel to the audience the way those pointed and yet somehow ephemeral clips in Yang’s memory feel to Jake. In preying on a sensation that’s only indirectly remembered, the impact it makes becomes unforgettable.

“After Yang” is now playing in theaters and is streaming on Showtime