It is admittedly no feat to spot the influences in a film directed by Kogonada. With After Yang, the South Korean-born filmmaker has two features to his name. He also has a slew of film essays on the work of other auteurs, so sensing notes of the spatial precision of Yasujirō Ozu or the airy philosophizing of Richard Linklater is easy. Kogonada already provided the answer key. What’s more interesting is scrutinizing how he tendrils the tone, visuals, and other cinematic obsessions into his own thick hank of rope.
Kogonada adapted the film from the Alexander Weinstein short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” The film is set in a not-too-distant future — or maybe even an alternative present — where highly realistic humanoid robots are available, including models that are specially designed to providing culturally grounded companionship to Chinese children adopted by non-Chinese parents. It’s that specific function served by Yang (Justin H. Min), who was acquired as a refurbished unit by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to help in the adjustment process for their daughter, Mike (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). They are an efficient family unit, at least until Yang malfunctions and breaks down.
The film follows Jake’s attempts to repair Yang, which quickly transform into more of an attempt to understand Yang and his history. In proper use of science fiction, Kogonada uses imagined technology as a means to really explore humanity. The dimming of circuits is a stand-in for mortality, and Yang’s retrieved, sometimes corrupted history files a corollary to the shaky accuracy and flailing redundancy of human memory. Matters of mourning, legacy, trust, and personal connection are all taken through the filter of Yang’s blipping simulation of human existence.
After Yang is laden with ideas. It is less a film that presents twisty puzzles — though it does feint in that direction at time — than one that swells with intellectual ambition. It is a work made to be deeply considered, its yes-but theorizing primed for intensely committed readings of text and subtext. The film has a Kubrickian chill that calls on the viewer to traverse a little more emotional distance than is ideal, even with the admirable commitments of the cast (which also includes Haley Lu Richardson, who is an empathy ringer, as Kogonada knows full well from his debut feature, Columbus). The risk that this cool quality could compromise the reach and hold of the film is niftily counterbalanced by the intricacy of the storytelling. That’s the lure. Kogonada is only two films deep into his feature directorial career, and yet he’s already starting to seem like a creator whose efforts are worthy of its own studious video essay.