In the title sequence of After Yang, five four-member households participate in a polychromatic, synchronized dance battle. With an energy that feels as much 1980s Jane Fonda (“Stay together!”) as contemporary K-pop, each group bops to the pulsing beat in shiny matching outfits. Two are comprised of a man, a woman, and two physically similar children; the rest are an array of ages, genders, and ethnicities. “Tornado time,” commands the virtual moderator, as each troupe spins in place, arms extended. The playful absurdity of the calisthenics clashes with the high-stakes pressure to move in unison. “Level two complete: four thousand families eliminated.”
For a film invested in heavy existential fodder — nature versus nurture, the prospect of life after death, our increasing reliance on artificial intelligence — After Yang stealthily evades the dystopian trappings we have come to expect from the futuristic sci-fi genre: verdant lawns replace industrial wasteland, computer screens are all but absent, and clothing is rough-spun muslin or linen, less space-age than Anthropologie. With an attention to austere architectural space akin to that of Antonioni, director Kogonada envisions a glass-strewn suburbia in which houses are small but refulgent, cars don’t exist but Instagram-ready cafes still do — as do demanding “Karens” in retail contexts, bearded computer technicians at “Quick Fix” counters, and middle-aged mechanics who vent about “corporate bullshit.” What counts as a “family” may be ever more flexible, but the concept itself is no less precious, and no less precarious, for that matter. The second feature by the Korean-American director who cut his teeth making video essays on canonical filmmakers, After Yang merges his fastidious attention to form with a rare empathy for the insecurity of the human condition, especially within the nuclear unit.
Based on the short story by Alexander Weinstein, the drama avoids excessive exposition, inviting us to infer or imagine underlying narrative context on our own. Set in an unspecified time and place in the future, Kira (Jodie Turner-Smith), a British businesswoman of African descent, raises Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), a seven-year-old girl adopted as an infant from China, with Jake (Colin Farrell), an Irishman who struggles to run a profitable teashop. As do most of the characters onscreen, Mika sports a generic American accent.
Of course, such multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism could apply to today — and that is part of the point. In the future, Kogonada seems to say, identity still matters, if not always in the same way. Mum can be the breadwinner while Dad brews rooibos, and affordable childcare is hard to come by. It’s a world a whole lot like our own, which renders the status of the eponymous “Yang” all the more disquieting.
Yang (Justin H. Min) plays the role of Mika’s (much) older brother — teaching her Mandarin, dispensing factoids about Chinese ingenuity, and watching over her when Jake and Kira are at work. That Yang resembles a nanny seems to obliquely comment on the present-day phenomenon of affluent Westerners outsourcing caregiving labor to those from different cultures and classes, often from less economically developed countries. But as we soon come to learn, Yang isn’t really Chinese; he’s not even human. He is, rather, a “certified refurbished” android acquired via “Second Siblings,” a purveyor of “cultural technos” to supply companionship for adopted children of foreign heritage.
When Yang malfunctions and “shuts down,” disqualifying the family from the monthly dance-off, Jake and Kira are faced with a serious dilemma: try to repair him — at great cost, and with the potential to leak invaluable spyware — or accept his loss as a sign that they need to step it up as parents. That an android can do a better job in caring for their daughter seems totally plausible, and yet Jake’s and Kira’s human imperfection is part of what makes them sympathetic. “I just want us to be a team, a family,” Kira sighs to her husband early in the film, a vision no less lofty — or fraught — than it is today.
Much of the film’s emotional resonance stems from Yang’s and Mika’s believability as siblings, as seen through a series of flashbacks afforded by his extracted memory chip. When Mika is teased at school for lacking “real parents,” Yang compares their family to the grafted apple trees in the backyard. “Remember, both trees are important,” he explains. “Your other family tree is also a vital part of who you were.” With his boy-band haircut and vintage tees, Yang comes across as both affable and unflappable, an ideal protector of his pig-tailed mei-mei — probing and disrupting the racist trope of East Asian people as impassive.
Whether Yang assuredly lacks human desires, or desires to be human, is also up for debate. Via a pair of rose-tinted time-traveling spectacles, Jake and Kira interrogate Yang’s recorded memories for themselves, mined like glittering gems in a galaxy of data — a cross between the cosmic universe sequence that launches Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and the grid-like opticals of The Matrix. “I wish I felt something deeper about tea,” Yang admits during a kitchen conversation with Jake. “I wish I had a real memory of tea in China, of a place, of a time.”
Would Yang be better off if he was human? Is the family better off after Yang? For the film’s taut 90 minutes, Jake and Kira try — and mostly fail — to convince themselves as much. But Mika’s grief at losing her ge-ge quickly becomes our own, as does her parents’ intensifying uncertainty about what his “death” will mean to them in the long term. “There’s no something without nothing,” Yang says when Kyra asks him, in a flashback, if “the idea of endings” make him sad.
For all its titular emphasis on what comes in the wake of his loss, After Yang is just as interested in what came before, and how memory itself can be intimate, transformative, and digitally navigable. Few visions of the future both dismiss and dignify the nuclear family as a coherent unit so cogently, not to mention beautifully. “Yang was a good big brother,” Jake reflects toward the end of the film. “No, he was a great one.”
After Yang is currently on select streaming platforms and in theaters.