One of the first things that may catch viewers off guard while watching After Yang, the newest film from writer-director Kogonada, is its vision of the future. These days, science-fiction that grapples with the prospect of artificial intelligence usually paints that future as a bleak, dystopian nightmare world. Kogonada, however, is too much of a humanist — too empathetic — to wallow in the same sci-fi miserablism audiences have already seen countless times. After Yang is melancholy, sure; like the director’s previous film, Columbus, it involves characters in mourning, but it’s first and foremost a hopeful meditation on memory, art and identity. It’s like someone transplanted the arthouse wistfulness of The Tree of Life into a more cheerful episode of Black Mirror. Nonetheless, like the tea its main character Jake (Colin Farrell) brews for a living, After Yang retains a flavor of its own.
Jake and his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), live a calm and cozy existence with their adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and their “nanosapien” companion, Yang (Justin H. Min), who functions as both a glorified babysitter and a makeshift sibling for Mika. In one of the opening scenes, Yang malfunctions and shuts down after a family session of a Dance Dance Revolution-style game (a session that makes up the gloriously wacky opening credits of the film). The sudden loss of Yang traumatizes Mika and leaves Jake with the task of figuring out whether or not he can or even should be rebooted. As Jake meets with various nanosapien experts, he ends up learning much more about Yang’s inner life than he anticipated when a repairperson discovers a small cube that contains brief snippets of memory from each day of Yang’s existence.
But can they really be called memories? Jake and, to a lesser degree, Kyra become engrossed in these five-second memory clips stored inside of Yang, sifting through and replaying them incessantly. Interspersed throughout the film are Jake and Kyra’s own memories of Yang, and through superb editing, Kogonada makes some revealing distinctions between human and artificial memory. Jake and Kyra’s recollections consist of long, heady exchanges between themselves and Yang, and Kogonada will frequently cut after a pivotal line of dialogue is spoken and replay different versions of it several times. In one instance, Kyra remembers tears streaming down Yang’s face when he says the existence of an afterlife “doesn’t matter to him either way.” A quick cut later, he utters the same words with a small smile of contentment.
There’s an extended flashback that serves as After Yang’s thematic centerpiece where Jake, who owns and operates a small tea shop, explains to Yang why he became so interested in Chinese tea. To Jake, brewing and drinking tea represents direct communion with the Earth and its past. The two each take a drink, as Jake gulps his down and Yang indifferently consumes his down whatever mechanical passageways exist inside his human-like frame. Yang, a living computer, knows all there is to know about Chinese tea, but he can’t understand it in the same way as Jake or his customers. “I wish Chinese tea wasn’t just about facts for me,” he says, “I wish I had a real memory of tea in China. Of a place. Of a time.”
Moments like that are, of course, gorgeous in their quiet air of longing. But they’re also rife with ideas, bringing up the nature of what truly gives one their identity. Neither Jake, a white man, nor Yang, an android who appears to be an Asian man, have experienced the culture behind Chinese tea, but it has in some way informed who each of them are. It’s an early and easy contender for scene of the year.
There’s plenty else to admire about After Yang — the subtle futuristic world-building, the wonderfully understated performances from Farrell and Min, and a sensuous score from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Aska Matsumiya. About halfway through the film, a subplot involving a character played by the always-superb Haley Lu Richardson is introduced, and the implications of her character bring up profound questions about Yang’s capacity for love and friendship. While that story thread is always engaging, it does feel underdeveloped by the time the credits roll. In a movie that already feels stuffed with plenty of ideas in its 96-minute runtime, perhaps it was one too many. That’s just a minor nitpick, though, in what is easily the best film of 2022 thus far.