In 2017, Korean-American writer-director-editor Kogonada took the arthouse world by (quiet) storm with his debut feature, Columbus. That film was about two people (John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) stuck in Columbus, Indiana, who heal each other’s psychic wounds by discussing the modernist buildings for which the small town is famous. Before that, Kogonada was most famous for his associative video essays on cinema greats like Ozu Yasujiro and Richard Linklater.

Last year saw the premiere of Kogonada’s long-awaited sophomore feature, After Yang. Adapted by Kogonada from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, the project surprised many when first announced: It’s a sci-fi. But a true master sees truth behind many guises.

In the near future, Jake (Colin Farrell, who seems to specialize in worried betas and prosthetic-laden “characters” — here the former) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) have bought an android, Yang (Justin H. Min), to help reconnect their adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), with her Chinese roots. But at the start of the film, Yang breaks down. The surface plot follows Jake’s efforts to repair him, a challenge because he was bought secondhand.

Jake’s discovery that Yang kept a memory diary of short video clips kicks off the actual plot, in which Jake seeks to understand this neglected family member from his most precious memories, including memories of a mysterious clone named Ada (Richardson again). Familiar snippets often plunge Jake into reverie, and the film emphasizes the frailty of memory by treating these flashbacks as short clips stitched together, with overlapping repeated dialogue providing continuity.

The further discovery midway through that Jake wasn’t Yang’s first secondhand owner expands the film’s scope into a kind of Bicentennial Man (1999) seen from the outside in. And the ending feels just right.

Kogonada’s filmic technique is masterful. The inevitable sci-fi question, How did we get here? is answered with a single shot of a bulletin board in Mika’s room filled with anti-Asian propaganda. In the middle are two newspaper headlines implying a concluded 60-year war between the United States and China. Judging from the family situation, China lost.

But China won the culture war. The living environments display a strong Asian influence (production design by Alexandra Schaller): geometric wood, stone pathways, noodles eaten with chopsticks. This is subtly underlined by using Ozu-style head-on centered shots for video calls (cinematography by Benjamin Loeb). No wonder some people, like shady repairman Russ (Ritchie Coster), still harbor deep sinophobia. The liberal consensus of nondiscrimination extends to sports (fans are widely looked down on), but not to androids or clones (Jake dislikes the latter).


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Taipei Film Festival

The lengthy war explains other aspects of the storyworld. Characters are known and located by first name only, hinting at depopulation. There’s so much open space, even at shopping centers. And among all the luscious greenery are no petroleum products or gasoline vehicles at all — life is too precious.

None of this, save the sinophobic Russ, is in the short story. Good sci-fi is grounded in a plausible future history, and everything here just works. Yet it’s all kept suggestively in the background.

Well, one point is brought up. Jake runs his own tea leaf shop. One of Yang’s memories provokes Jake’s memory of the same event, when Yang, chock full of “fun facts” about China, asks Jake why he loves tea. Yang quotes an ancient poet waxing lyrical about how a sip of tea can evoke a whole autumn season (think Proust’s madeleine). Jake says he just likes how it tastes. The aesthetic is there but the spirit is lost.

It’s an uncanny sense of frisson that will be familiar to Asian Americans, American Asians, or indeed anyone caught between two cultures in hard-to-delineate ways. It looks like it’s all there, but something’s not quite right. Kogonada analogizes that feeling into the home: Jake hides Yang’s memories from his wife and daughter till very late in the film, while Kyra herself is too busy at work (as a natural historian/resurrector, I believe) to concern herself with family dynamics. They’re all there, but not quite.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Taipei Film Festival

The question of what to do with Yang’s memory and slowly degrading body raises questions about his humanity. One school of thought calls androids “techno sapiens” and studies them as the next evolutionary step. But contrary to what you might expect from sci-fi, the question isn’t so important.

When Jake asks Ada whether Yang ever wanted to be human, she replies, “That’s such a human thing to ask, isn’t it? We always assume that other beings would want to be human. What’s so great about being human?” Beats me.

After Yang will be shown as part of the Taipei Film Festival, which this year runs from June 23 to July 9.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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