Following the widespread critical acclaim of his debut film Columbus in 2017, South Korean-born American filmmaker Kogonada, whose moniker is inspired by screenwriter Kogo Noda, is back in the director’s chair. After Yang is a sci-fi family drama based on the short story ‘Saying Goodbye to Yang’ by Alexander Weinstein.
The plot follows parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) who have purchased robotic child Yang (Justin H. Min) to help their adoptive daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) connect with her Chinese heritage. Rather than buying him from the original manufacturer, they got a pre-used model from certified seller Second Siblings, so when he suddenly becomes unresponsive, the family must get him repaired to restore the settings of their unorthodox family unit.
With such an interest concept, a lot of opportunity is presented in terms of the thematic exploration of Kogonada’s script. He smartly uses a futuristic science fiction narrative to pose questions on loss, grief, love, memory, and existentialism, and re-opens the age-old genre conversation of how humane an A.I. can truly become. For all its metaphysical wonder, the film struggles the capitalise on its intriguing, contemplative premise. Patient pacing becomes too ponderous, and the clinical nature of its tone leaves it somewhat detached from the emotional resonance it requires. At times, even the non-robotic characters can feel too mechanical and laborious in their behaviour.
Farrell is no stranger to the idiosyncratic side of cinema, having worked with Yorgos Lanthimos who specialises in dystopian strangeness and surrealism. He can deliver the off-kilter dialogue very well, and though the disconnect between him and co-star Turner-Smith could be said to be very intentional, their relationship felt falsified to the detriment of the story. In what is her first film, Tjandrawidjaja is great, and steals many of the scenes with her innocent enthusiasm which, in turn, provides much needed moments of humour. The tender flashback sequences between her and Min are well written and performed, but their sibling relationship is cut short as the third act delves into a weakly constructed romantic subplot.
More Black Mirror-lite than Tea of Life, this subtle sci-fi observation from writer and director Kogonada feels like a watered-down interpretation of more powerful and daring tales of the same ilk. With a striking aesthetic and some strong performances, After Yang is never really dull, but it is ultimately rather boring.