Movie review: After Yang

(courtesy IMP Awards)

In the aftermath of great and terrible loss, such as the death of a loved one, a weirdly disquieting stillness descends, one so abhorrently quiet that it feels like you have been sealed away in a pocket of nothingness while the world goes riotously on.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like but if I was try to tell someone unacquainted with this oddly silent interregnum between stages of life what it is like, it would make sense to reference After Yang, written and directed by Kogonada, a film that explores what it feels in the dizzyingly disorienting wake of a greatly unwelcome shift in a person’s life.

In this nuanced, thoughtful and hushed story of one family grappling with the loss of a titular robotic sibling, the titular Yang, played by Justin H. Min with a quiet compassion, warmth and vulnerability that draws you in and breaks your heart slowly knowing as you do that his loss is imminent – or far in the future since the film moves between the past and present with an expository elegance that shows how it should be done – the world is one way one minute and then not the next.

Following one of the best opening segments in any film where the Fleming family – tea shop owner Jake (Colin Farrell), corporate highflyer wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and of course, older sibling Yang, bought to ensure Mika is fully acquainted with her Chinese heritage – participate in a highly energetic, intricately choreographed dance-off with 30,000 other families online, Yang briefly malfunctions before stopping completely.

Adored by Mika, and loved and appreciated by Jake and Kyra – although at one point Kyra says she worries they are letting Yang raise Mika instead of always being there themselves, pointing to a gulf that becomes chasmically apparent in Yang’s sudden absence – the family’s techno-sapien, as he’s formally know, is very much a member of the family, and his loss is felt keenly.

Most obviously by Mika, for whom Yang is the best big brother anyone could hope to have, but by Jake and Kyra too, with Jake taking the lead in trying to find a way to fix Yang, a mission that is undertaken against a furiously ticking clock as Yang’s body, an organic sheath around a robotic core, begins to decompose just like any other person’s body would.

Of course, no one, least of all Mika, wants to admit that Yang is gone forever, although Kyra is the first one to acknowledge that this may now be their reality and that perhaps it is an opportunity for her and Jake to resume a relinquished place of primacy in their daughter’s life, and so driven by a need to reconnect with Mika, though that’s never explicitly stated, Jake meets everyone from a backyard repairman to a museum curator to see if Yang can be brought back from the digital grave.

But as it becomes increasingly clear this may be a lost cause and that there is far more to Yang than anyone was ever, some big questions start getting asked.

First and foremost of course is what it means to be human.

As Jake’s quietly desperate quest to find a way to re-animate Yang follows an uncertain and unpromising course, he, and by extension the audience, are asked to consider what real humanity looks like.

Everyone Jake encounters seems to see Yang as simply a sophisticated machine, something to be pulled apart or studied and exhibited, but to Jake, Kyra, and most affectingly Mika, who mourns his loss with a childlike urgency and simplicity that is heartbreaking, and to the enigmatic Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), he is a living, thinking, unquestionably human being.

Even so, Jake is forced to a point of reckoning, when his prejudices about what is or isn’t human are exposed in a way that troubles him deeply, where he has to consider just how human Yang really was.

It’s a beautifully fraught and trying journey, made all the more arresting by the snatches of memory that surface from time to time – quite how these are realised is best left to the film which navigates the past and present with a sorrowfully touching but intimately moving empathy – revealing the true depth and breadth of Yang’s humanity.

After Yang is remarkable for the fact that it is, even in the midst of intensely big questions about what makes us human, the nature of family, belonging, love and intimacy and whether we can transcend who we intrinsically are to become someone else entirely, a thoughtfully quiet and meditatively beautiful film which captures the way in which death and life dance curiously and awkwardly with each other, leave us stranded uncomfortably somewhere between them.

Filmed with a hushed and intimate cinematography, which makes vibrantly affecting use of colour, fragments of conversation, light and introspection, the work of cinematographer Benjamin Loeb whose eye for detail is masterful without being pointlessly artful to the point of leaching all the emotion out of richly resonant scenes, After Yang is an excursion into the very heart of humanity and what happens when that is ruptured, broken or interrupted.

Because, of course, that is precisely what happens in the midst of grief; what we once held and knew is suddenly gone, our way of being and interacting with the world ripped asunder – it’s funny how so many big and emotionally violent things happen so silently and in a muffled vacuum in the aftermath of death – and we have left flailing, wondering where we go next.

By the end of After Yang, Jake, Kyra and even Mika, who draws closer to her father especially during the emotionally turbulent rush to save Yang – again “rush” may be the wrong word though there is brittle, desperate urgency in every languid scene and hesitantly troubled moment – there is a sense of moving on but only in the way that that is forced on the family.

They would far prefer Yang to still be there, as would anyone who grieves the passing of a loved one, and their journey to finally accepting his absence is an agonising one that Kogonada captures with insightful humanity and deep understanding that will catch your breath at times, but move on they must finally do in a reflection of the way life keeps dragging us ever on, even if we wish we could stay bubbled away in those small precious moments of memory that sustain us in the wake of the capacity to make new ones being ripped from our grasp.

As poetic meditations on death, love, grief, humanity and loss go, After Yang is a brilliantly affecting piece of work, a journey into the darker places of the soul but also to renewed love and connection, the kind that often find themselves when a chasm appears in our lives, which looks beautiful and stunningly gorgeous, all while embracing an emotional honesty that captivates and immerses, and which, containing compelling performances from all concerned, enthralls you from start to finish as you watch Jake, Kyra and dear little Mika come to terms with what the rest of their life might look like when what it was ends with no fanfare or warning and they are forced to embark on the hardest journey anyone is ever called to make.

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