Kogonada is a filmmaker I’ve followed for years, even before his debut film Columbus. He was behind some of my favourite video essays like Kubrick // One-Point Perspective and Godard in Fragments. I remember when I first saw Columbus, and it felt like there was a calm relaxing breeze in the theatre. Regardless of how many times I’ve seen it since, it continues to give me the same sensation when the credits roll. So when After Yang was announced, I knew it was something I was going to have to watch as soon as I could. Once I heard the overwhelmingly positive response coming out of Sundance, the wait until its release felt like it would never end. Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m conflicted.
Yang (Justin H. Min) is a technosapien, an A.I. helper for Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the family’s adopted Chinese daughter. One day, he stops working. It’s hard to describe After Yang, even after watching it. Still, the truth of the film — just like Columbus — is more about a feeling. If Columbus was about (re)discovery, After Yang is about being human and all that encompasses it. It feels vast and tiny in the same brushstrokes as it deals with loss, purpose, endings and beginnings, and even then, it feels like we’re missing out on so much. That’s the thing with time. Unfortunately, eventually, it runs out, and we’re always hoping for more, even for potential A.I. helpers like Yang.
It’s why I’m conflicted. Films about androids and A.I. often have something to say about what it means to be human, or simply human behaviour, but it seems as if After Yang starts to say the same things and so much more, but just briefly. It’s a film that makes us stop and think far beyond the film’s credits. There were moments that continued to run through my head, playing on repeat similar to the memories we witnessed. Through the film, we see glimpses of a life lived. We see the progression of time and the burdens that come with it. Eventually, they add up, and it’s hard to keep moving.
We could talk about Colin Ferrell’s subtle performance, Jodie Turner-Smith’s compassion, Haley Lu Richardson’s electric charm and especially Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja’s pain. But it’s Justin H. Min’s thousand-yard stare as he looks at himself in a mirror trying to make sense of it all, what does it mean to be human, a technosapien, Chinese, and even alive? It’s these moments I’m left thinking and wondering about. We aren’t privileged to hear his thoughts or his point-of-view in the film, but you feel the weight of it all as he tries to smile. His quiet stare says a million things all at the same time.
Going into After Yang, I didn’t know what I would experience. During the film’s surprisingly brief runtime (I was hoping for two hours), I wanted more. Maybe I expected answers to the situations and questions Kogonada asks us. If Mika is adopted, and Yang is artificial, then what’s real? Mika’s parents aren’t her parents, not really, but aren’t they? They don’t care for her less or love her less, nor does she love them less. It’s real to her, and it’s about that tangible feeling of love or being loved that Yang looked for and had. The loss of it got to him and can get to anyone. After Yang, like Columbus before it, is about feeling, not a specific one, but feeling something — anything that helps us continue.