In After Yang, Jake is exhausting himself trying to repair something – or someone. Yang is a humanoid that he purchased out of convenience. When he and his wife Kyra adopted their child, Mika, from China, they wanted her to still be connected to her heritage. So they bought a technosapien that was already pre-programmed with ancient facts, history, and language. They would teach her to be a family, and he would teach her to be Chinese.
One day, Yang won’t turn on, and Mika is despondent. She refuses to go to school, can’t be left alone, and cries at the idea of being separated from Yang. In a desperate attempt to see if Yang can be repaired, Jake allows a technician to jimmy the black box within, and he finds a memory bank. In accessing those files, Jake begins to reassess his level of engagement and introspection in his own life.
Grief is a specialized emotion. It is reserved for the loss of someone or something important, loved, and irreplaceable. Unlike most other emotions, which are transient, grief is a monument in your emotional landscape. The feelings will change as you adapt to this permanent fixture in your life, but grief has no solution and will not go away.
Jake is not connected enough to his daughter to know that what she is experiencing is grief, but he knows that it is urgent and wants to ease her pain, and he thinks that maybe fixing Yang could make the sadness stop.
It is frustrating watching Jake not participate in his life. The fact that he got his only child a certified-refurbished sibling rather than shelling out for a new model is indicative that he suffers from a compulsive lack of investment. But when he stumbles on Yang’s cache of precious memories of their family, Jake is forced to re-evaluate how he values.
The way Colin Farrell communicates Jake’s transformation is subtle and still somehow complete, the difference between an aperture being closed and then opened. Before the incident with Yang, his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) and child (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) are luminous around him, yet nothing penetrates. There is a lack of focus in his eyes and unavailability in his expression. When the revelation happens, Jake is suddenly sharp, receptive, and visibly curious.
Justin H. Min’s performance of Yang is placid. We observe him interacting with family members, and he is always receptive and inquisitive, but there is always this crystalline distance to him. He is humanity twice removed, being both android and in retrospect. We end up relating to Yang the same way Jake does, through his memories.
Yang’s memory bank could only store a few seconds of every day, which we experience as snippets. We see Mika as a baby, leaves on a tree, Yang looking at himself in a mirror, the family posing for a picture, we experience instants of conversation, a girl singing along at a concert. To Jake, these moments are ordinary, but they are not mundane because they were worth keeping to Yang.
In his way, Kogonada shows us examples of what is beautiful and holds it dear. That same deliberate curation and preciousness come across in Kogonada’s direction. Though he is being critical about the direction of science and technology, his view of the future is still warm and aspirational. His meticulous intentionality from the texture of a fabric, the light in the room, the way Mika opens and closes the glass door suddenly becomes an invitation to not just experience but consider.
After Yang is a touching reminder to invite into our lives what will inevitably make us grieve. Jake and Kyra brought Yang into Mika’s life because they were not equipped to teach her what it means to be Chinese. They brought Yang into their family because they somehow thought that he would be all meaning and no grief.
What they underestimated is that bringing meaning and value to our lives will always eventually break our hearts. But by opening ourselves up in that way, by letting ourselves be that vulnerable, we too will be able to look back at the sum total of our moments and know that we mattered.
The Sundance Film Festival is online January 20- January 30. Tickets can be purchased and a full lineup can be found here.
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