Humanity’s age-old question, “what does it mean to be human?” returns with the South Korean-American Koganada’s second feature film, After Yang. Set in an undetermined future, the speculative existential sci-fi film deals with a world where a leading technological company called Brothers and Sisters develop Alexa-like androids for adopted ethnic children. Alongside helping around the house, the human-resembling androids’ primary function is to connect the children with their cultural heritage and biological ancestry.
Adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, After Yang deals with a family from the future; Jake (Colin Farrel), his African-descended wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), their Chinese adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), and the artificial big brother Yang (Justin H. Min). The film opens with the multi-ethnic family portrait taken in serene greenery by Yang, where he’s urged by the young daughter to join them. However, the peaceful family’s harmony is disturbed when Yang breaks down during a deeply amusing (and slightly unsettling) opening dance sequence, where millions of families of four compete against each other from home.
What starts as an inconvenient chore for Jake to repair the android, slowly and deliberately transforms into an existential search for meaning. As Mika acts out more due to the absence and uncertain return of her companion, Jake is pressured harder into finding a solution. Because he originally bought a techno-Sapien, Jake lacks the proper warranty and seeks out an outlaw repairman who’s deep into the conspiracy that the techno-sapien is loaded with spyware. With Jake’s permission, the repairman breaks into the core of the mechanical creature—only to find what he calls a memory box in his chest. Following this tangent, Jake takes the memory box to a museum dedicated to techno-sapiens in hopes of finding a reader that can crack into the box.
Jake successfully delves into the memories deemed important enough to be recorded by the android. These are mostly shared memories, only seen through an external figure’s eyes (like the family photo session the film begins with). But, there’s more. Memories of his newborn daughter, moments of tender intimacy between Jake and his wife, a girl named Ada that Yang formed a relationship with, and Yang’s yearning for meaning and identity.
In Koganada’s futuristic vision–with a secretive, ethereal cinematography that visually resembles what a live-action of a Japanese animation Ghibli could be, but with the additional constraint of the nearly claustrophobic design–one thing remains certain: fathers are still inclined towards detachment and over-reliance on external support to raise their children. Essentially, this is a film about a detached father who loses a son he never consciously considered a son. “He was a good brother. He was a great brother,” Jake says near the end of the film.
The unacknowledged grief is different from the repressed grief of a person who is at least aware they should be grieving. As Jake delves deeper into the memories, the discoveries of heartfelt surprises, and Yang’s absence in the household, he unwaveringly starts to acknowledge this loss. The final question perhaps isn’t “what does it mean to be human and was Yang one?” (which the film, like all others, can only pose but not answer), but “Did Yang’s existence, no matter what we call it, matter? Is the place he leaves behind palpable?” This one, the film does answer.
“Will we ever dance again?” the young daughter asks in distress. The mother affirms, with the clarification, that they’ll have to dance in families of three from now on.
After Young is Currently Showing in Zawya Cinema