Kogonada’s science fiction film After Yang is acutely intelligent but ends up infantilising its characters. By Christos Tsiolkas.
A few minutes into After Yang, the eponymous title character dies. The film will be about grief, of how Yang’s family and his friends will come to terms with his passing. However, the story is complicated by the fact that Yang isn’t human: he is a “techno”, an artificial intelligence (AI) robot.
Yang, played by Justin H. Min, has been bought by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) to be a companion and sibling to their adopted child, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Mika’s birth mother is Chinese and Yang’s database has been programmed so the robot can educate his charge on Chinese history and culture. When Yang stops functioning, Jake and Kyra are unable to get him repaired by the company that created him, Brothers & Sisters Inc., because they bought the “techno” second-hand. For Kyra, this presents an opportunity to wean Mika off her dependence on Yang. But both Mika and Jake find such a separation impossible: they have grown to love the robot.
Written and directed by Korean–American director Kogonada, After Yang draws from a longstanding science fiction tradition that explores the unsettling ethical questions that arise when technologies can reproduce the human form and human consciousness. A generation on from the dystopian visions of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and William Gibson’s fiction, the humans in the film are not deliberately cruel in their treatment of the “technos”. Yet as Jake obsessively begins to investigate ways in which he can resurrect Yang, it becomes evident that even the most well-meaning of humans finds it difficult to imagine a world in which the robot’s self-determination has equal value to their own.
Jake’s crusade leads him first to a black-market technician, Russ, played by Ritchie Coster, who discovers that Yang’s computer system has been programmed with spyware that has been clandestinely filming his adopted family. For the technician, this feeds his paranoid conspiracy theories of big tech. Later in the film, Jake will be asked by a museum curator, Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), if Yang can become part of a permanent exhibition that aims to offer humans a greater understanding of AI. Though Cleo’s empathy is genuine, she too can only comprehend Yang’s worth in terms of what his existence means for humans.
The most powerful aspect of the film is its warning that, as a species, we abrogate our care of the beings that our technology creates. The selfishness that Russ clearly demonstrates, and which is sublimated in Cleo’s more considered and intellectual response to the existence of the technos, forces us to reconsider the family’s response to Yang. We begin to wonder whether Mika’s affections are very different to her love of her toys. And a troubling question arises from Jake’s fierce urge to re-create Yang: Is it that he wants a “child” that is programmed to never grow up, who will never develop and assert individual agency?
This is Kogonada’s second feature film. He is a deliberately enigmatic artist, most renowned for a series of long-form video works and art installations that interrogate film history. In choosing to work in the genre of science fiction, he recognises that the form has a long history that stretches back to some of the earliest works of cinema. There are nods throughout the film to this history, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Chris Marker’s phenomenal short film, La Jeteé. The narrative harks back to Mary Shelley’s radical work, Frankenstein, and beyond that to the ancient mythological fables of Adam and Eve and the story of Prometheus.
Kogonada’s evident intelligence kept me invested in the story but the brutal truth is that his command of cinematic technique is limited. The film is lethargically paced and shot in a dark palette that is consistently visually uninteresting. A pivotal section deals with Jake and Kyra examining the recordings of Yang’s memory. The director also edited the film, and these reconstructions are banal in both conception and execution. He cuts into Yang’s memory, using jump-cuts both visually and aurally to contrast human and AI recollection, but there’s no clear differentiation between the two kinds of remembering. A robot might have memory banks that faithfully record sound and vision, but human memories aren’t that distinct, and certainly are not that reliable.
Throughout After Yang, I kept thinking back to two more recent science fiction films that also dealt with the implications of AI: Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born (2020). As in Jonze’s film, Kogonada imagines a near future that is almost antiseptic in its sterile uniformity and in its overcoming of the racial, class and environmental tensions that challenge our society. But nothing in After Yang has the disquieting effect of the moment in Her when we realise that the AI’s intelligence is vastly superior to our own. The shock of that film is in dealing with the consequences of our creations being smarter and more “perfect” than humans can ever strive to be.
In Wollner’s film, the jolt comes not only from a human’s exploitation of AI, but also from an abrupt cut that occurs halfway through the film that forces us to examine how class affects our relationship to robots and new technologies. The trope of human cruelty to the Other, almost universal in depictions of the interactions between humans and robots, is reversed, and we are forced to confront a reality where our creations owe no allegiance to the identities and social systems that dominate human lives. Wollner and Jonze are asking a far more radical question than that being posed by Kogonada: What does it mean to create beings that owe no allegiance or loyalty to us? In comparison, After Yang’s explorations of such relationships seems romanticised and naive.
After Yang doesn’t have the imaginative span of those films. It’s possible that the director’s work in the visual arts is a hindrance when it comes to working in narrative feature. Video installations depend on stasis and the reverberation of image and sound and Kogonada’s tendency towards repetition is evident in some of his video work.
The one moment of genuine visual pleasure in the film is over the opening credits, when the family is taking part in an online dance-off. The editing is dynamic, propulsive, recalling the best moments in Gaspar Noé’s Climax. This sequence is thrilling but no other moment in the film matches that excitement.
Fortunately, Kogonada is lucky with his actors. Farrell seems refreshed and inspired from his recent work with Yorgos Lanthimos. He tended to over-emote as a younger actor, but his strong command of his performance as Jake transcends the limitations of the script. His grief is authentically communicated and I admired the sense of longing that he invests in the role. The marriage between Jake and Kyra seems sexless and I like the tease that his affection for Yang is not merely parental or filial, that there has been a subdued passion in their relationship.
Turner-Smith is a commanding presence. Her restraint is powerful, as is the sense of her relief in imagining a future without Yang. I wish Kogonada had reacted to her work more during the filming and had further developed what it might mean for one of the family to feel a distance from the techno. It would have made for a more complex, difficult work.
In uncovering the robot’s memories, Jake discovers that Yang has developed a relationship with a clone, Ada, played by Haley Lu Richardson. Ada and Yang discovered an affinity in their both being outsiders. However, the filmmakers avoid the question of what it might mean for the two beings to form a relationship.
There’s a sentimentality that runs throughout After Yang, a deliberate abjuring of the messiness of desire and sexuality. Kogonada wants to universalise the experiences of the techno and of the clone and in doing so infantilises them. The lugubrious framing and cinematography are only veneers of profundity. Sometimes artlessness is just laziness. Ultimately, After Yang is deeply unsatisfying.
MUSICAL Driftwood – The Musical
Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne, May 18-28
VISUAL ART James Guppy: The Consolations
Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane, until May 28
VISUAL ART Tracks We Share: Contemporary Art of the Pilbara
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until August 28
SCULPTURE Pure Form: Japanese Sculptural Ceramics
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, May 21–November 6
BALLET Alice (In Wonderland)
His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until May 21
THEATRE Blithe Spirit
Sydney Opera House, until May 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Antiseptic intelligence".
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