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Review: After Yang

March 11, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

“Do androids dream of electric sheep?” was the question asked in the title of Phillip K. Dick’s novel that provided the basis for sci-fi classic Blade Runner, and Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada’s After Yang asks if humans would grieve an android’s “death.”

Kogonada’s second film as director following his beautiful 2017 drama Columbus, After Yang is based on the short story Saying Goodbye to Yang by Alexander Weinstein, and tells the story of a family struggling with the loss of their android family member.

Yang (Justin H. Min) is a humanoid “techno-sapien” who was purchased as a “second sibling” for Chinese adoptee Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Programmed with “fun facts” about China, Mika’s parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) bought him second-hand to provide a cultural link for their daughter back to her heritage. Mika has formed a bond with Yang, who helps care for her and fills the role of a protective older brother.

When Yang stops working one day and won’t turn back on, Jake embarks on the process of trying get him fixed, bringing him to a repair shop that is willing to open him up. As they wait to see if it is possible to repair Yang, the family tries to navigate the empty space left by his absence, declining the offer of purchasing a replacement for him. When Jake gains access to Yang’s recorded memories, which are stored on a small, crystal-like hard drive and viewable on a pair of VR goggles that look like sunglasses, he starts going through them and discovering more about Yang’s own dreams and desires.

With increasing advances in AI, the idea of robots gaining sentience and forming bonds with humans is increasingly fertile ground for humanistic science fiction (the story shares some thematic similarities to Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novel Klara and the Sun, as well as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and its subsequent film adaptation), and After Yang explores these themes in a quietly moving way. Kogonada does a lovely job of showing how much Yang is a part of this family (the high-energy dance sequence that opens the film already feels iconic), using flashbacks to reveal the impact of his loss.

It isn’t a film of big special effects (though the subtly futuristic production design does give it a spacey, post-modern feel including several sequences in a self-driving car), but rather one that puts the focus on simmering emotion that allows its big ideas to percolate. The film takes a bit of time to reveal itself, but once it does, After Yang becomes a poignant exploration of memory, ancestry, and the concept of life after death.

Farrell carries the film with his sensitive performance, playing Jake as a grieving father who is struggling to reconcile the loss of a family member and the implications it has for them going forward. For his part, Min does wonderful work bringing flashes of human emotion to his android character, and Kogonada’s Columbus co-star Haley Lu Richardson also appears in a supporting role that adds more layers of depth to the film. The result is a piece of contemplative, meditative low-fi sci-fi that rewards patient viewers with heartfelt emotion.

After Yang is now playing in limited release at select theatres across Canada, including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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