Kogonada has created a gentle and warm examination of grief with AFTER YANG. He’s done it in such a different way than most examinations of the topic. Most films go for a much more heavy examination of loss, but AFTER YANG has followed a different path. By centering an AI helper as the lost loved one, the film has license to examine many of the other issues that surround death and one particular family’s reaction to it, and their personal issues. AFTER YANG doesn’t parse the violent emotional reactions to grief as it tries to give understanding to the process of letting a loved one go and understanding the important part that they played in your life. At the same time, the film examines not only what it means to be human but the nature of existence itself through the character of Yang. Who he is in particular and how people perceive him. What it means to live and then one day, die, without warning. What does our life really mean? Why do we love when we will eventually lose everyone we do love or be lost ourselves? Is there any purpose to our existence at all?
The loss of Yang brings other simmering resentments and misunderstandings within the family to a head. It’s like Yang, an android, was the being who was holding this family together as they drifted away from each other. I think that some of the family members believe that Yang got in between them and others, but I think it’s actually the opposite. Yang was the glue that was holding their rapidly disintegrating family unit together and when he’s non-functional, they have no choice but to face what they have done to themselves. They leaned on Yang, because they had no idea what to do and couldn’t or refused to face their troubles. He was their excuse to not communicate and face what has gone wrong in their relationships, but that lack of communication and unwillingness to face each other was already there before Yang arrived.
AFTER YANG stars Colin Farrell (The Batman, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer) as Jake, Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim, “Anne Boleyn”) as Kyra, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja (“iCarly”, “Raven’s Home”) as Mika, Sarita Choudhury (The Green Night, Hologram For A King) as Cleo, Clifton Collins Jr.(Traffic, Pacific Rim) as George, Richie Coster (“The Walking Dead”, The Dark Knight) as Russ, Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus, Unpregnant) as Ada and Justin H. Min (“Umbrella Academy”) as Yang.
Kogonada is the director and writer of the film, he adapted the short story “Saying Goodbye To Yang” by Alexander Weinstein. Benjamin Loeb (Pieces Of A Woman) is the cinematographer and you should remember his glorious work on the film, Mandy. The score is by Aska Matsumiya, with an additional theme composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and singer Mitski contributing a cover of the song “Glide”, both specifically made for the film.
While the film has the elements of science fiction and is set in a future where there are AI helpers, nothing else about the film has the traditional science fiction trappings. Nobody is wearing a helmet or flying hovercrafts. Much like the progress of time in the real world, AFTER YANG’s future time is simply handed to the audience as a fait accompli. There’s no need for ornate symbols of a future time. That’s not important. Clothes are made of natural materials and the family’s home is a 20th century “modern” style home designed by Joseph Eichler that the production found for the purposes of filming.
The film’s cinematography is on the darker side for the most part but has warm tones of yellow, gold, and green that are perfectly gauged to illuminate the action and warm the skin tones of the actors. The cinematographer has considered all of the actors in doing so and perfected the lighting that hides and reveals everyone and the setting in that warm way. The costume design is by Arjun Bhasin and does a wonderful job of complementing the actors and keeps with the naturalistic future theme of the film. The film’s crew, including the location group specifically, all deserve a round of applause because the film’s aesthetic is served very well by their hard work. It’s a really good unified work as a whole. Kogonada edited the film himself.
The ensemble does great work. Colin Farrell is so subtle as Jake. You can see Farrell’s determination but he exposes a much more gentle side of his character. It’s been really cool to trace the progress of his career and recognize his talents. Jodie Turner-Smith simmers with quiet resentment at how her life has turned out but never becomes mean, you can feel her thoughts and her sadness. That’s what her resentment really is, it’s her sadness. Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja is amazing as Mika. She’s the most angry of everyone in the family. You can see that her anger is her sadness as well. She’s so hurt because she feels betrayed by the loss of Yang. It’s a familiar conundrum of grief. You are angry at the person who died for leaving you. It’s not their fault, but the anger is still there. Clifton Collins Jr. is touching as the seemingly nosy neighbor who is only really trying to help in his own awkward way. Hayley Lu Richardson touches the heart with her work when her relationship with Yang is revealed. Justin H. Min does excellent work as Yang, the unperfect but soulful AI helper, who made helping his family his short life’s work. It’s a very complex characterization and Min is amazing.
I talked a little bit about the themes earlier, but those are just the larger ones. The film is dense with themes and explorations of human nature. Mika’s anger about Yang is something that even gives her parents pause. Yang’s whole being is mysterious. Justin H. Lin plays the character as a mystery. You can’t quite get a full reading on Yang and that’s an extremely well-done performance. There’s no stereotype to Yang even though on the surface it might seem so. In a way, Yang is the most well-adjusted and most human of all the characters in the sense that he is a fully formed adult being without malice who always thinks of others.
He’s what many of us aspire to be in our secret hearts but we can never reach. He knows his life will be short and he doesn’t blame anyone for it. His purpose, and maybe it’s just his programming or maybe not, is to serve and help others. To be kind, no matter what others do to him. The irony of the being of pure goodness being taken away from humans who react in anger and fear to his absence. It’s nothing so simple as Yang being godlike AI or something like that. He’s not totally perfect either, but his intentions and actions are always good despite his lack of perfection.
The film has its moments of levity. It is charming and will surprise you with its exuberance for life and capacity for odd humor. AFTER YANG is a marvel of warmth and humanity in a tale about an android and his family who are bereft in his absence. How his death teaches them how to love each other again and find the courage to let go.
AFTER YANG is now available in select theaters and is now streaming on Showtime.