The word that seems to appear most often in my notes for Kogonada’s new film After Yang, is ‘quiet’. I noted that the film was a quiet rumination in what makes and breaks a connection and that it was quietly emotional rather than melodramatic. I also penned down that Colin Farrell is quietly forming one of the most unexpected, versatile careers in Hollywood.
And all of that is very true. A critic’s notes are unfinished, passing thoughts, but it’s not a coincidence the word ‘quiet’ often floated to the front of my mind while watching After Yang, a film so restrained, yet so confident in its emotional power.
After Yang concerns a family consisting of Jake (Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and their adoptive daughter Mika (wonderful new talent Tjandrawidjaja) and the titular Yang, a ‘technosapien’ which is a fancy way of saying he’s an android, specifically bought to teach Mika her Chinese heritage and help her connect with it. The film gets its plot from Yang suddenly malfunctioning which sends Jake on a journey to try and fix him, but he’s also faced with profound loss, sadness and the surprising power of memory.
As with Kogonada’s previous film, the compelling (and some would say, quiet) Columbus, After Yang gently guides you through a variety of emotions. Kogonada, a film scholar and visual essayist, never spoon-feeds you his ideas, although After Yang is packed full of them. You’re left on your own devices to make what you will of Jake’s journey.
The setting is the near future and it’s subtly implied that there was a decades long war between China and the United States, evident from the fusion of fashion, food and architecture. The clothes are mostly made of linen, with loose fits. Architecture played a huge part in Kogonada’s Columbus and while it’s not a vital part of the narrative, it’s essential to set the tone and sense of place here.
Mostly, After Yang is about connection. Conversations between Jake and Kyra are edited in traditional shot-reverse-shot manner, but instead of an over-the-shoulder shot, the characters are staring directly into the camera. It brings a sense of artificial, manufactured connection, which Jake specifically begins to question as he dives deeper and deeper into Yang’s memory bank.
Perhaps this is what connection is in the future; forced despite an emotional and geographical distance. After Yang is also about loss and grief. How do you grieve machinery? Yang wasn’t fully human, yet, Yang was an essential part of the family and Mika misses him and wants him back. Where did the machine end and the human begin within Yang?
Colin Farrell is wonderful as Jake. This year alone he’s turned in three wildly different performances; The Penguin in The Batman, Jake in After Yang and as Padraic in The Banshees of Inisherin. It’s an impressive roster for any actor, but Farrell seems to have found his stride in his later years.
Jodie Turner-Smith, powerful in Queen & Slim, is terribly underused here. She’s perceived as being distant and constantly busy, but her character seems like an afterthought in the narrative. A few more familiar faces pop up, but After Yang is so full of ideas, it doesn’t have time for character development.
For all its merits, After Yang can be challenging. It’s lyrical and poetic, but maybe a tad inaccessible at times and Kogonada forgets to let the characters and the narrative breathe and just exist. It’s so restrained, it almost loses its audience, but as a whole, it’s a magical piece of cinema. The score by Aska Matsumiya is beautiful, if manipulative and the cinematography by Benjamin Loeb is expressive and calm. After Yang is truly a feast for the senses and one of 2022’s finest sci-fi offerings.
After Yang is available on Sky Cinema now.