Science fiction can often be the perfect genre to explore what it means to be human. The concept of human + AI interaction is nothing new and has been explored to death in movies, yet this sci-fi drama still offers something fresh and poignant.
After Yang is set in a not-so-distant future where droids and clones, or techno-sapiens, have become a part of our human world. The film immediately drops us into the dynamic of a family, comprised of an interracial couple Jake and Kyra, and their adopted daughter Mika, who also goes by her traditional Chinese name Mei-Mei. They had gotten an android named Yang as Mika’s companion, but when he malfunctions, Jake has to figure out a way to repair him.
It’s becoming rare to see a quiet, reflective film with such an immersive power. Director Kogonaga also adapted the screenplay, based on a short story from Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World collection. I’m not going to go into the plot details as I don’t want to rob you of the joy of discovering it on your own when you watch it. Kogonaga’s storytelling style is unique in that it doesn’t bombard you with a ton of exposition or flashy techniques, and he’s also unafraid to let the film takes hold of you with its quiet grace.
Those who have become accustomed to all the more-is-more spectacle of so many movies today might find it tedious, but it’s such a breath of fresh air for me. Who needs action spectacles when you can craft dialog scenes in such a spellbinding way? I still can’t stop thinking about the time Jake and Yang talk about the idea of tea, or the ‘caterpillar and butterfly’ discussion between Kyra and Yang about life after death. The camera work by Benjamin Loeb is unique in that the camera is often still as it captures a scene, instead of focusing in and out of the subject, allowing us to observe things as they are. The visual has an ethereal quality to it that perfectly captures the pensive, melancholic mood of the film.
The cast is all superb in their respective roles. I’ve become more and more impressed by Colin Farrell’s increasing versatility, I love his bold career choices of late and he seems to be able to fit into any genre of any style effortlessly. He anchors his role of Jake beautifully here, it’s perhaps my current favorite role of his to date. This is only the second time I’ve seen Jodie Turner-Smith in a movie (the first one was Without Remorse) and I’m glad to see her talents being utilized wonderfully here as Kyra, whose character is the breadwinner of the family.
Indonesian-American young actress Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja is terrific in her feature film debut. As an Indonesian-born film critic, of course, it’s fun for me to see someone from my home country in a Hollywood movie! Hope to see more of her in future projects as she’s clearly very talented. Justin Hong-Kee Min is fantastic as Yang, all dignified, solemn yet kindhearted, definitely NOT your typical domestic droid who’s often depicted as wanting to take over humanity. In fact, there’s a memorable conversation where a clone actually makes fun of that very idea. Sarita Choudhury and Haley Lu Richardson are quite memorable despite their short screen time.
What’s especially important in a sci-fi movie is world-building and the filmmakers did a fantastic job here with minimalist style. The homes the characters inhabit feel futuristic yet lived-in, blending western and eastern architecture and interior design styles. The futuristic aspect is pared down given the relatively low budget of less than $10 mil, but the filmmakers astutely use minimalism to achieve maximum impact. I especially love the way they depicted autonomous driving with the use of lighting effects and the way they consume online content by just putting on glasses. It looks like a world I could imagine living in.
I’m always intrigued by sci-fi movies that don’t actually feel sci-fi-ish, which one usually associates with rigid structures and sterile environments. The aesthetics of After Yang feels warm and organic, as is the interaction between Yang and Mei-Mei, which makes her loss of her companion more agonizing to watch.
I’ve been wanting to see After Yang for a while and I’m glad I finally did as it strikes a chord with me. It’s easily the most underrated film of the year as there’s such little fanfare about this film. It’s such a shame as it’s such a brilliant and deeply moving film about loss and grief that will linger long after I watched it. I can’t recommend this enough, and at a mere 96-minute long, it’s well worth your time. No doubt this will be on my top 10 list of 2022.
Have you seen AFTER YANG? I’d love to hear what you think!