Review: After Yang (2021)

Writer-director Kogonada follows his debut feature Columbus with a brooding sci-fi revolving an android named Yang. The titular character is a central part of the family — bought to act as an older brother figure to the young Mika, an adopted Chinese girl whom Yang teaches about her heritage. After malfunctioning in the opening credits, the father sets out on a quest to repair the comatose Yang, and uncovers a wealth of beauty and tenderness at the androids core.

After Yang is a gorgeous film that shines more in its in-between moments rather than as a full picture, but maybe that’s the idea. The film fancies a lot of themes—transcultural adoption and identity, ethical issues in artificial intelligence, sentience and all of its subtexts—but it doesn’t so much do a deep dive as it does present a series of vignette-like segments, lamenting philosophically loaded ruminations. Sometimes such scenes are accompanied by pensive quotations from figures such as Lao Tzu and Werner Herzog, and are striking in their wistfulness, delicately edited with broody repetition, but they never quite graduate beyond trace sentiments into something more abiding and profound.

The film has quite a muted voice, with characters who are, not so much repressed, but rather subdued. It’s a meditative piece that certainly lingers in ways, but it felt a bit like a meal with ingredients which are all very ravishing, but don’t quite come together in a way that feels substantial. It’s beautifully presented, with a contained futuristic setting that is at once inconspicuous and dreamy (technically it reminded me a little bit of Caldwell and Earl’s 2018 film Prospect), and I adored the moments with Justin Min’s titular Yang, and how delicately and gracefully it portrays grief, but I wish there was a bit more to it — I wish it went a bit deeper.

After Yang has a lot of merit and a heart that feels very sincere. It’s clear the director has approached the film as a rather soft, subtle, and understated reflection, and it does work, but I think its core aspects have been outdone by certain other films which present a more extensive and affective portrait. Interestingly, throughout After Yang, Kogonada patently references Shunji Iwai’s 2001 film All About Lily Chou-Chou, though I’m still working out to what effect. Lily Chou-Chou presents a sweeping tale of fraught identity, but I don’t think the two films are particularly analogous. Perhaps the director simply enjoys Iwai’s diaphanous quality. At any rate, for all the people After Yang is going to introduce to Iwai and the ether, I can only be thankful.

For more reviews and film musings, find me on Letterboxd.

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