Editor’s Note: this review was originally published during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
After his quiet 2017 masterpiece Columbus, filmmaker Kogonada moves tangentially into the world of heartfelt science fiction with After Yang, which debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, the film is set in the not-too-distant future and tells the story of parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), who have an adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), from China. When we meet them, they also apparently have an older Chinese son named Yang (Justin H. Min), who it turns out is an extremely lifelike android (or “techno-sapien,” as he is called in the film) that the couple purchased (certified refurbished) as a way to help Mika connect more with her Chinese heritage in ways that they couldn’t teach her. This well-meaning gesture becomes problematic when Yang malfunctions, leaving young Mika distraught and her parents desperate to find out how to fix her robot older sibling.
It turns out the couple bought Yang “slightly used,” and as a result, they can’t take him back to the manufacturer or any certified repair place, which leads Jake down a series of rabbit holes (recommended by neighbor George, played by Clifton Collins Jr.) of unsanctioned repair options, one of which discovers that Yang has a memory function that has been recording moments of everything he and the family have been doing their entire time together. But his memories also reveal encounters with previous owners, as well as a current relationship with a mystery woman (Haley Lu Richardson) that no one in the family knew he was capable of engaging in.
Jake combs Yang’s memories, hoping to discover a key to fixing him, but instead he discovers an artificial intelligence that seems to be on the verge of actual self-realization and emotion, which ultimately leads him to a museum curator (Sarita Choudhury) who believes this revelation about this model of robot sibling is worthy of study and research, which would ultimately mean permanently separating Yang from the family in the name of science and progress. Less a conspiracy-based tale (although that does factor into the equation) and more a study on how Yang impacted this family in meaningful and existential ways, After Yang uses its cold, sleek facade to barely veil its emotionally complex core that investigates everything from what makes a sentient being to the fractured state of Jake and Kyra’s marriage. Both parents work too long and too hard to provide for Mika the way they should, so Yang was also acting as her de facto babysitter much of the time, and his absence highlights what inattentive parents they’d become with him around.
While most films of this nature have many moments of the android attempting to find out how to be more human by asking often unanswerable questions (which this story does), After Yang features Jake digging deeper into the mind and memories of his android in an attempt to understand better how Yang functioned and what held value to him. Perhaps not surprisingly, the movie deals with topics such as loss, compassion, and the role of technology in our lives. At once sweeping and intimate, After Yang is never anything less than fascinating and endlessly moving.
After Yang is now streaming on Hulu.
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