Aye, robot.

After Yang (2021 movie)


Movies about the future tend to come in one of two forms, aesthetically: Cold Apple Store (gleaming white surfaces, chilly existentialism) or Unhinged Apocalypse (dust, chaos, primal fear). After Yang, written and directed by the mono-named auteur Koganada (Columbus), falls in a warmer, less common category — a dream-like koan of a film whose gentle melancholy recalls minor-key predecessors like Spike Jonze's Her and the recent German export I'm Your Man far more than anything aggressively modern or Mad Max-ian.

Colin Farrell and Queen & Slim's Jodie Turner-Smith are Jake and Kyra, a couple in some unspecified century not so unlike our current one; he runs an old-fashioned tea shop (loose leaves, not the more popular crystals), she works an office job. Together they've scraped together enough money to buy their little girl, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), an AI "sibling" (Justin H. Min) who functions as both a nanny-companion and a sort of informal cultural attaché, affirming and exploring Mika's Asian heritage in ways her adoptive parents can't.

Yang, a so-called techno-sapien or just "techno," looks and acts like any ordinary man, albeit one with exceptional patience and a seemingly endless well of what the family affectionately calls "Chinese fun facts." So when he abruptly stops functioning one day, they're at a loss; Yang is a refurbished model — "certified!" Jake blusters — which means he's no longer under warranty, and no one at the standard places seems to know how to fix him. Access to his motherboard, though, reveals flashes of an inner world the family had no inkling of, including recurring images of a girl (The Edge of Seventeen's Haley Lu Richardson) who seems to hold some unknown significance for him.

After Yang
Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, and Justin H. Min in 'After Yang'
| Credit: Linda Kallerus/A24/SHOWTIME

A bravura dance sequence in the opening credits aside, though, the movie's mournful, deliberate tone can often feel too muted, as meditative and gorgeously composed as one of Jake's tea ceremonies. Characters speak in a hushed, almost flat affect, as if not to wake a giant sleeping in the next room, and veteran actors like Clifton Collins Jr. (as an eager-to-please neighbor) and Sarita Choudhury (as a bio-scientist anxious to study Yang's secrets) aren't given much to work with, beyond a few brief expositional scenes (and God bless, that title-card choreography.)

Koganada, who premiered the film at Cannes ahead of its simultaneous release in theaters and on Showtime March 4, reveals all this in careful, often elliptical layers; the science and sequence of things seems to hold less interest for him than the overarching mood of it all. His camera revels in small, exquisite details, from a car interior lined in intricately carved wood and feathery little tufts of moss to a constellation of stored memories as starry and expansive as any galaxy. And nearly every scene is suffused with a kind of golden analog glow, as if the future portrayed here were already somehow nostalgic for itself.

Within those constraints, Turner-Smith and particularly Farrell work to add subtext to all the things that seem to go unspoken between Jake and Kyra — their marriage, if not exactly strained, certainly doesn't seem to be thriving — and Min (The Umbrella Academy) hints at depths that Yang, amiable to the point of blandness, rarely betrays. Though he's ostensibly at the center of the story, the questions Koganada's script poses (what constitutes consciousness, identity, family?) are ultimately subsumed by the Rorschach blot of feeling and memory it evokes. Like its muse, the movie feels a little like a black-box experiment, one that can be both frustratingly opaque and achingly lovely: a still-waters mystery whose ripples, even up to the last frame, only hint at what lies beneath. Grade: B

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After Yang (2021 movie)
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