MANY great works of art have depicted complex relationships between humans and androids, and how their interactions could shake up how we see society and its constructs. Take Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Isaac Asimov’s seminal novel I, Robot or even David Cage’s recent video game Detroit: Become Human. Now there is After Yang, from director Kogonada.
The movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month, is based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story Saying Goodbye to Yang. It follows tea seller Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), who have bought an android named Yang (Justin H. Min) for their adopted daughter Mika (newcomer Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).
Their hope is that Yang, who resembles a teenager, will help Mika reconnect with her roots in China. After a few days, the android stops working and Jake must find a way to reactivate him. Yang, however, is a refurbished “technosapien”, so the seller can only offer Jake a discount on his next purchase or to destroy Yang for a fee.
Mika has already developed a connection with the android and Jake doesn’t want to disappoint her. Through different repair attempts and an encounter with a technosapiens museum curator, Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), Jake delves into his own past as well as Yang’s. In the process, he starts to question the way he sees organic and synthetic life, gradually discovering that Yang is capable, like “real” humans, of loving, remembering and appreciating the taste of a good cup of tea.
Thanks to the elegant production design, the future depicted by Kogonada is a visual feast, loosely echoing the world evoked in Spike Jonze’s Her. Here, advanced technology and environmental awareness seem to coexist within a heavily urbanised, multicultural society. It is a place where androids and humans can live together peacefully, or at least tolerate each other’s presence.
Throughout the film, Kogonada builds a strong bond between the family and Yang. Yes, Yang is a machine programmed to feel and express emotions, but what makes him human (or at least “organic”) are his memories, which let him develop an identity and learn from other people’s emotions and experiences.
Yang’s life with Jake’s family is meaningful: his presence and (spoiler alert) subsequent demise force the family to go through an unexpected crisis, but also help them heal deeper wounds, with Jake and Kyra coming to realise that they are the only ones who can really be in charge of Mika’s future and how she reconnects to her Chinese roots.
The cast – Farrell and Turner-Smith, in particular – deliver understated performances, which suit the intimate atmosphere of this tale. Skilfully combining elements of family drama and science fiction with elegant tributes to Japanese director YasujirŌ Ozu, Kogonada creates a compelling, quasi-philosophical piece about the mystery of the soul. The movie could have ended before the final exchange between Jake and Mika, but never mind, it’s still enchanting.
If you are hungry for similar fare, try Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Klara and the Sun, a darker world where children are genetically engineered to achieve academically and are homeschooled by solar-powered AIs.
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