Sundance Film Festival Spotlight Section
Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson
Screened at: Sundance Film Festival Online, LA, 1/22/22
Opens: January 21st, 2022
We can’t know exactly what the future holds, but technology is constantly evolving and artificial intelligence seems poised to gradually begin to dominate society. Many jobs have already become automated, and, even if human interaction is still very much necessary, there are those who have found situations in which a computer can function just as well to do the task, at least theoretically. Science fiction often tells cautionary tales about robots taking over the world, but it’s not quite as common to find sentimental stories about sentient androids who discover an unexpected capacity for feeling things that can only be described as human.
When Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopt Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), they also decide to get Yang (Justin H. Min), an android who can help her Mika connect to her Chinese heritage. The two develop a warm bond, but when Yang begins to malfunction and shuts down, Jake struggles to figure out how to get him fixed. His search for a solution leads him to discover the extent to which Yang was able to transcend his programming and learn just as much about the world around him as he was able to teach those without an encyclopedia of knowledge coded into their brains.
After Yang opens with an extremely entertaining dance montage that finds family units moving in sync as they compete for the distinction of being the best. That credits sequence sets a peculiar but appealing tone for the film, almost making its human characters seem just as robotic as its androids. That is one of the film’s underlying points, that there are ways that people operate which feel automated and emotionless, and while creating someone who doesn’t need to have all those feelings might seem like the most logical option to ensure compliance and efficiency, human behavior is a crucial part of life and the proper execution of normal daily tasks.
This film’s title is thought-provoking in itself since it references Yang in the past tense, even though he appears throughout the film in flashbacks and as Jake comes to learn more about how he operated and the unique way in which he saw the world. Though Yang might theoretically have the ability to endure long past a typical human lifespan, he malfunctions early in his existence, and repairing him proves exceedingly difficult because, like an iPhone model that isn’t brand-new, he was purchased “certified refurbished,” a condition that evidently didn’t make just as good and optimal as an unopened original.
After Yang marks the second narrative feature film from writer-director Kogonada, who got his start five years ago at the Sundance Film Festival with Columbus. This film boasts strong cinematography and a captivating style, but among its best assets is its screenplay. The conversations characters have are magnetic, including one lengthy discussion of tea, which Jake makes and sells as his work and which prompts Yang to truly ponder and to extract considerable meaning where most might not even see any opportunity for further exploration.
Farrell and Turner-Smith lead a very capable cast that also includes minor but memorable performances from Sarita Choudhury, Haley Lu Richardson, and Clifton Collins Jr. Tjandrawidjaja and Min both impress in their first and second film roles, respectively. This is a film that delves fully into its own identity and its characters’ understanding of themselves, using elements of science fiction to ask questions about what it means to be alive and to appreciate that state of being. It’s meaningful, enduring, and haunting, full of rich commentary about what we weigh as important and what actually matters.
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+