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Cannes 2021 ‘After Yang’ Review: Kogonada’s Futuristic Family Drama is a Meditation on Memory and Technology

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A particular fixture of modern culture is the unique depth of intimacy we’ve forged with our technology. Computers often know more about us than we do, and smartphones sleep next to us like lovers, or extensions of our own bodies. After Yang, the sophomore effort from erstwhile video essayist Kogonada, explores this intimacy ad absurdum in a speculative, futuristic family drama that recalls the gentler episodes of Black Mirror. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film imagines a world with “technosapiens,” a brand of ultra-humanoid AI that families can adopt as their own. But when one family’s technosapien malfunctions, and it becomes increasingly clear he cannot be repaired despite their best efforts, a much deeper meditation on memory and family emerges in the wake of his loss. 

After all, there’s a reason computers and people share the parlance of memory; people are archives of their own, vessels for experience and encoded information. As Jake Fleming (Colin Farrell) delves into the annals of his family’s damaged technosapien Yang (Justin H. Min), he realizes that Yang was not just a hired babysitter but a real person—functionally, even if not literally—who existed outside of the Fleming family, a being with his own private life and memories. Though Jake’s wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) is more pragmatic about the whole affair, Jake can’t help but linger in Yang’s glimmering memory palace—at first for the benefit of his Chinese adopted daughter Mika (newcomer Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who longs for the older brother she calls “Gege,” and then for the curiosity of the museum curator who wants to present Yang’s memories in a gallery. But after some time, it’s clear that Jake rifles through Yang’s memories for his own, slightly inscrutable purposes: a bittersweet mélange of his own mourning, his affectionate curiosity about the former life of his techno-son, and something less definable, a fundamental, insuppressible voyeurism that all humans have for the inner lives of others, especially the ones they love. 

As Jake discovers, Yang had a past life before he arrived at the Flemings’ home. He was once involved, romantically or otherwise, with a clone named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson). Together they frequented cafés, enjoyed Mitski concerts (or presumably a singer from the future with her exact vocal likeness), and shared a life together, and this discovery opens the window to an entire new set of questions about Yang’s mysterious life. Could Yang experience feeling? Could he feel love? Who was he before he entered the Flemings’ life and became part of their family? Like any good work of speculative fiction, After Yang asks questions not only about the organization of a future society, but also of its ethical priorities. Kogonada offers both the shiny aesthetics of the future—the sleek, self-driving car and the high-speed, tightly choreographed family dance competition—as well as its more philosophical quandaries. 

Whether robots can experience feeling and desire has been the subject of many an undergraduate philosophy class; whatever their conclusions, Kogonada makes it hard to deny the obvious personhood of Yang, particularly when he loves and is loved so deeply by those around him. In the short video clips that comprise Yang’s memory archives, which evoke the instantaneity and brevity of Instagram stories or camera roll videos, Jake exercises the most extreme form of empathy, literally able to position himself in Yang’s shoes. From his techno-son’s perspective, he relives the sweet, quotidian moments of his family’s formation and development; he watches Mika’s infancy and early childhood, and Yang caring for his daughter with the attention and love unique to family. 

There’s also the fact that the “real” people of After Yang are not unlike robots themselves, speaking in strange, affected monotones. Kogonada collapses the distance between human and robot, imbuing Yang with such humanity but also muting the intensity of the characters who are more strictly “human,” resulting in a slightly bizarre, mumbled effect. Farrell’s performance, with his clipped, placid intonation, evokes his performances in Lanthimos films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, ensuring an unhurried, relaxed pace for the film, even when its characters are in crisis. It’s not an altogether unpleasant directorial choice, and it certainly heightens the sense that the world of After Yang is specific and other, if occasionally off-putting. 

All of this to say, it’s easy to see Yang as nothing short of completely human, even though the film repeatedly reminds us he is biologically not. In this distinction and others like it (this is also a world with clones, against whom Jake holds a barely-concealed prejudice), the film transposes a clear metaphor on citizenship and race. Though this is a society that clearly accepts multiracial families, the racial lines have not completely dissolved. The Flemings adopt Yang from an organization called “Second Siblings,” headquartered in Chinatown, and Jake repeatedly insists to the various repairmen tasked with fixing him that he is “certified,” despite being refurbished and resold, a label that evokes the language of immigration documentation. 

In Yang, Kogonada depicts an extreme sense of the cultural distance that many Asian-Americans feel between their American identity and their Asian heritage. Though Yang can recite proverbs from Lao Tzu and facts about ancient Chinese society, he cannot access lived experiences of the homeland. “I wish I had a real memory of tea in China,” Yang admits. Instead, he—and Jake—are left to contend with the memories he does have. But these are no less sweet. When Mika speaks in untranslated, un-subtitled Chinese to Yang, it’s a moment so intimate that Kogonada withholds it even from the non-Chinese-speaking audience. It’s evident that Yang does not need to be housed in a museum or even resuscitated in order to have a second life, not when his first was already so full. 

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Caroline Tsai

Caroline Tsai is a film critic and screenwriter by day, meticulous watch-list curator by night. (Seriously—she might have a problem.) When she’s not daydreaming about Oscars season and working out as an excuse to rewatch “Succession,” you can find her interning for Janet Yang Productions, writing newsletters for her Substack (cahier.substack.com), and publishing occasional fiction at carolinetsai.com.

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