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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Not every relationship is commutative; not everything works as well backwards as it does forwards. And so it is with the the delicate, exquisite sensibilities of Korean-American director Kogonada, which proved so adept, in his superb and singular feature debut Columbus (2017), at locating the extraordinary and the transcendent within the everyday functional asymmetries of Columbus, Indiana’s modernist architecture.

In After Yang, his Cannes-selected follow-up, Kogonada attempts a reverse alchemy, designing a dizzyingly high sci-fi concept and parsing it for humbler truths about our everyday lives. But to find poetry in the prosaic contours of a suburban bank building  is inspired; to be similarly winsome and wonderstruck in the presence of already awesome, uncanny, not-yet possible technological landscapes, can feel oddly insipid.

Yang (Justin H. Min) is a hyper-lifelike android, purchased by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Smith-Turner) to be a brother to their adoptive Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Yang is programmed to be the ceaselessly attentive, wise and compassionate elder sibling that traditional family planning so seldom produces. He’s also to be a font of knowledge about Chinese culture, offering up “Chinese fun facts!” at every juncture so that Mika gets to know her heritage.

Mika is devoted to her mild, serene brother, and Jake and Kyra have come to rely on him in ways they’re not even aware of, so when Yang suddenly shuts down and repair proves tricky, the three remaining family members start to grieve him in different ways. 

Yang’s absence is initially a destabilizing subtraction, like a missing tooth. For one thing, it means the family can no longer compete in the Family of Four category in the regular online dance competition that opens the film with such unexpectedly joyous, silly verve – a mood sadly never again glimpsed.

Kogonada prefers a muted register, which suits the film’s beautifully doleful production design and Benjamin Loeb’s purposeful, warm-toned, watchful camerawork. Characters move through these hushed still-life compositions as though half-aware they are occupying someone else’s future. Kyra, especially, is undemonstrative to the point of being, well, robotic – as though at some point between now and this unspecified era human beings have evolved beyond vivacity and become a numb, affectless species, never displaying any of the messier emotions.

Jake bought Yang through unofficial channels; now, when he brings the ‘corpse’ (Yang is partly organic, so the prospect of his ‘decomposition’ is frequently mentioned) to the backstreet technician recommended by his neighbor (Clifton Collins Jr), he discovers an inexplicable, thumbnail-sized piece of tech embedded within.

The first assumption is spyware – perhaps Mika’s big brother is a plant for Big Brother? It seems a stretch given the ordinariness of the family (Jake runs a failing tea shop), and on closer inspection the galaxy of tiny gif-lengthed clips the chip contains are too absurdly banal for that. Yang, an experimental model, had been outfitted to record snippets of life as and when it occurred to him to do so. So these random assorted moments are Yang’s ‘memories’ and, touchingly, they reveal that this machine, which Jake assumed had no capacity for emotion, not only seems to have loved them all, but had a secret interior life that none of them knew anything about.

This is undoubtedly a beautiful thought and if it’s hard to get away from the cliché of the what-is-this-thing-you-call-love robot who wants to be human, it’s also impossible not to be moved by the little, insignificant details Yang decided were worth hanging onto – the arranging of a family photo; the branches of a tree; his own reflection in a mirror, smiling faintly; a seconds-long loop of a girl (Haley Lu Richardson) at a pop concert.

Later still, Jake’s perusal of Yang’s memories leads to even deeper, more existential discoveries, but these, like so many of the film’s more fascinating avenues, remain underdeveloped. Jake has some sort of antipathy toward clones, which are now commonplace. It’s a detail that could lever open an investigation into the dividing lines between the soul, technology and the biological body, which have repercussions across a vast range of hot-button topics. But the subject is largely let drop for fuzzier, more general musings on love and life.

Similarly, Yang ponders the meaning of cultural identity within the film’s overtly multiracial (perhaps post-racial) milieu. But “Am I really Chinese?” is a question the android asks of himself that is never addressed. Kogonada’s gentleness is a lovely virtue, but it’s perhaps ill-suited to the harder explorations this futurescape teases; each time After Yang favours plangent, bittersweet mood over actual insight, it feels like a retreat.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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