What does it mean to be human?
It’s a question that has baffled the greatest minds for thousands of years. There is no single answer, and just about every possible answer produces another exponential round of questions. But despite the daunting task set upon by any sedulous searcher, 2021 and 2022 have seen several filmmakers offer their own opinion on the matter.
Revered master Apichatpong Weerasethakul gave us Memoria, a film with a meditative atmosphere that not so much answers questions, but leads the viewer down their path of contemplation.
Through the process of human cloning, Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song begged the question, can human identity be passed on and perfectly emulated by inorganic beings? Through the use of two brilliant Mahershala Ali performances, Cleary’s delicate parable of lost love showed the power of interconnectedness.
And now, debuting before and after the previously mentioned films with its early Cannes world premiere and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival comes Kogonada's After Yang, a mixture of reality and poetry that breathes through its slow brew atmosphere.
The second half of the title comes from the name of the perfectly human-like android (portrayed by Justin H. Min) within the multi-racial household of father Jake (Colin Farrell), mother Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and child Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Yang was brought into the fold at the same time as Mika was adopted from China as a way to connect her to her ancestral roots. For years, life has gone by as planned with Jake overseeing his tea shop, and Yang acting as Mika’s main point of contact for her identity crises. One day, that peaceful cycle breaks down when Yang enters a catatonic state. As they attempt to bring him back, Jake and Kyra learn more about Yang’s deeper connection to their daughter, and the memories he harbored in life outside his family.
Writer/director Kogonada started out in video essays examining the themes of some of cinema's greatest auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu, and Ingmar Bergman. And now, with only two films to his name, Kogonada is already entering the conversation as one of the best humanistic directors of the modern era.
His previous feature, Columbus, makes use of precise visuals that synchronize with the gentle storytelling. It's a highwire act of writing and directing made to look remarkably simple.
After Yang maintains that same level of stillness as it transplants its setting from modern Indiana to a distant future where all of humanity has melded into a semi-perfect homogenous society. Production designer Alexandra Schaller takes an East Asian inspiration for the architecture, complete with straight lines, tranquil gardens and minimalist spaces.
The stillness transfers to the performances as well, with Farrell at his most introspective and compelling. It harkens back a bit to his work with Yorgos Lanthimos in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with the dialed back emotions and an everyman disposition. He serves as a perfect gateway into this strange, new world.
The parts where the film reaches its peak are the sequences where Jake accesses Yang’s memories. In those moments, everything within the film seemingly comes together, as Kogonada (also serving as his own editor) leans into the humanistic side of Alexander Weinstein’s original 2016 short story. From his memories, Jake sees the empathy and compassion that Yang experienced and shared over time, and how he passed them onto Mika through everyday lessons. The string-filled music of ASKA brings overwhelming emotional power when paired with Benjamin Loeb's fleeting, heartbreaking visuals.
After Yang is full of grace and compassion, with a touch of melancholy to make it a truly reflective experience of the human soul. It merges American sci-fi with the softer side of independent cinema, which makes it a perfect project to be under the A24 umbrella. An official release date has yet to be announced, which has justifiably angered cinephiles that have been left out in the cold. But when the day comes that this gem is opened for all to see, that patience will be greatly rewarded.