Cannes 2021: Kogonada's 'After Yang' is Subtle Sci-Fi at its Very Best
by Alex Billington
July 9, 2021
It's not often that the Cannes Film Festival plays science fiction films, but when they do, they're some of the best science fiction films all year. After Yang is the second feature film directed by the Korean-American filmmaker known as "Kogonada", who made his debut in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival with a feature called Columbus after creating video essays about cinema for years before that. It seems he has taken his experience with that film (and his vast knowledge of cinema) and developed even more as a filmmaker in crafting After Yang, a remarkably astute and beautifully compelling story about family and memory. After Yang is the best sci-fi film about artificial intelligence since Ex Machina, the kind of film that pulls you in and entices repeat viewings right away. It's one of these films that is going to be dissected and analyzed for years. The details in every frame, the depth in the storytelling, all while remaining so slick and minimalistic.
Written and directed by Kogonada, adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, After Yang is set in a near future and is about a family reckoining with questions of love, connection, and loss after their "A.I. helper" unexpectedly breaks down. Or at least that's the one-line description for this. The film is much more complex than that, but in a very subtle way, with so much of the meaning and so many of the bigger ideas never expressly stated - often times worked into the background or hidden in the dialogue. Colin Farrell stars as the father of the family, Jodie Turner-Smith as the mother, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as their daughter Mika, a young Chinese girl they adopted. A corporation builds and sells android siblings, and they have one – a boy named Yang played by Justin H. Min – who grows up with Mika and helps her feel comfortable as an adopted child, exploring her culture and her roots and teaching her to make sense of the world. When he breaks down, the entire family feels his loss as they try to figure out if they can repair him.
Most of the time while watching After Yang, my mind was spinning attempting to figure out what Kogonada was really trying to say and what he was really exploring. It's not just a film about family and about culture, and it's not just a film about artificial intelligence, and it's not just a film about a broken android. Much like how chefs will "deconstruct" a staple dish and turn it into something more refined, I think Kogonada is "deconstructing" the sci-fi classic Ghost in the Shell and turning that story into something more refined as well. The more I thought about it, the more I picked up on hidden references to Mamoru Oshii's anime. There's also a revelation where it seems Kogonada is touching upon reincarnation, and intertwining that concept within the modern philosophical concepts of artificial intelligence. As with Ghost in the Shell, After Yang wonders if this machine (they're called "technos" in the film) can also develop a conscious on its own, can develop a soul, and how does it do that? How exactly does that happen. And what are the implications?
This film is already destined for the Criterion Collection. Kogonada is such a masterful filmmaker, but we already knew that. I can't say it's perfect, and the film did leave some unanswered questions, but I loved it anyway. There's a few ideas it touches upon, but never explores further, despite the possibility and potential to dig even deeper. I can't stop thinking about it and trying to figure out what everything means, moment by moment. I wonder how many will have different interpretations; how everyone will pick up on something different, discovering their own unique connection to the film. I need to see again before I can start to piece it together, and I need to talk to more people about their thoughts as well. Colin Farrell is extraordinary as always, really the highlight in here though the entire cast is on point. It's absolutely gorgeous, meticulously crafted subtle sci-fi brilliance. And the minimalism is magic in the film, perfectly composed shots that allow us to fall into each shot and drift through this world with the family as they wonder about their lives as well.