After Yang review: A gentle vision of the near future in which Colin Farrell thrives

·3-min read

Dir: Kogonada. Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson. PG, 96 minutes.

After Yang finds no fear in the future – only existential malaise. Set in a vague not-so-distant time, the film follows Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Jake (Colin Farrell) as they grapple with a broken robot. They had bought Yang, a refurbished android embodied by Justin H Min, to help familiarise their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) with her native Chinese culture. But Yang has since stopped working. The android sits hazy in the background of the film, slumped against a wall. A corpse that’s not a corpse.

And so, Jake attempts to have Yang fixed, an endeavour that leads to the discovery of a chip implanted in the robot’s body. It isn’t spyware, as he initially suspected, but a rare, experimental memory bank that has archived the most memorable seconds of each day. Watching the footage, Jake unspools memories of Yang together with his family – as well as evidence of an unexpected acquaintance between Yang and a fellow android Ada (Haley Lu Richardson).

Adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, After Yang is the second film by Korean American essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada. It circles many of the same ideas as Kogonada’s debut Columbus – a similarly muted drama about a blossoming friendship between two strangers (John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) played out against an Indiana city famous for its modernist architecture.

Both films, at their core, consider the indissoluble relationship between the soul and the things it creates, how they nurture one another and give each other meaning. Here, the creations in question are synthetic humans, welcomed into families as adopted siblings. Yang has essentially co-raised Mika. He’s both a commercial product and a member of the family. Is there any essence of humanity buried deep inside him?

Kogonada’s vision of the near future does not evoke the thrills of cyberpunk aesthetics. Instead, it’s all Scandinavian wood, banal consumerism and the sort of unflattering fluorescent lighting you find in office buildings. Farrell – thanks partially to his work with acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos whose enigmatic films (The Lobster, The Favourite, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) have always relied on stiff and alien interactions – has delivered increasingly subdued performances (The Batman antics aside). And he thrives here, in the role of an introspective man who runs a tea shop and who, I like to imagine, whispers all his secrets into a steaming mug. Turner-Smith’s ever-so-slightly more buoyant performance as a mother who feels increasing guilt for her absence is the film’s necessary counterpoint and source of dramatic tension.

The pseudonym Kogonada is a nod to screenwriter Kogo Noda, famous for his collaborations with esteemed Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. That influence has always been present in Kogonada’s work, but it’s particularly fascinating to see how After Yang repurposes Ozu’s tendency to have characters directly address the camera. Here, Kogonada presents it as a symptom of a technological future. It’s almost as if everyone in his film is so used to talking to one another through digital screens that their bodies have become stilted and static. No one moves unless they have to. As After Yang gently suggests, there’s no longer a way to conceive of ourselves that’s entirely detached from technology. Nerves and circuits, inevitably, all work towards the same goals.

‘After Yang’ can be watched via Sky Cinema from 22 September