Saturday, March 12, 2022

After Yang

This movie is extremely my thing, from its delightful opening credits to its careful world-building to how its characters all sit a while, cope with loss, and maybe come out a little wiser without defaulting to tradition. It brought me from snort-laughing at a running joke about buying something "certified refurbished" (which I may have done a few times) to enjoying big sci-fi concepts to the very human heart of it without any one aspect trivializing the other.

Also, I love that Colin Farrell's Werner Herzog impersonation carries delight and curiosity rather than the detached nihilism so many people go for. I love Herzog, not just for how he seems larger than life and kind of odd, but for how he seems genuinely fascinated by a world that sometimes makes no sense and works to understand it rather than dismiss it. I see a lot of the same in Kogonada.

(Obligatory Kogonada's first movie Columbus is great, rent Columbus, it's the first thing I saw Haley Lu Richardson in and I've been impressed ever since.)

(Obligatory "Colin Farrel with an Irish accent is always better than Colin Farrel with an American accent" note)

After Yang

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2022 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

Kogonada's After Yang is a wonderful sort of oddity, a film which looks into the future and embraces the idea that it will be different without actually being about those differences or treating them as window dressing. It is, primarily, a movie about sadness that recognizes that this sadness exists in large part because of the presence of great joy, and as a result it might not exactly be a sad movie. The memory of it may make one smile more than weep.

It takes place a little further into the future than one might think, introducing the audience to a small family - Jake (Colin Farrell), who operates a small tea shop and can sometimes seem detached; Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), his wife, who shoulders some of Jake's responsibilities; Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), their adopted daughter; and Yang (Justin H. Min), a technosapien meant to serve as Mika's brother and help her maintain a connection to her Chinese culture. Kyra worries that she and Jake delegate too much to Yang, but that problem will soon be exchanged for another, when a minor-seeming glitch one night has him in an off state the next morning. Their neighbor recommends an underground technician, who finds an unusual chip in Yang's core, which a researcher (Sarita Choudhury) describes as a seldom-seen memory bank. As Jake examines the contents, he's able to see his family from the outside - and also notices memories of Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), who has no connection to the family at all.

Movies like this are often set a metaphorical twenty minutes into the future, not just to save the budget but so that the situations their characters face are new and strange, society's struggles with something new equivalent to people facing new-to-them issues writ large. Interestingly, Kogonada pushes far enough ahead as to be past much of that - there have been clones and technosapiens for a while, and although scientists and even technosapiens themselves are still learning to truly wrap their heads around how their minds work, there's a humility to it. What Jake, Ada, Mika, and Kyra are dealing with is not something unique and unprecedented, but it's still hard, and that it doesn't map exactly to what a viewer who has lost a family member feels is a feature rather than a bug, highlighting how everybody's experience is different and difficult to know from the outside.

It gives Colin Farrell terrifically melancholy material to work with. His Jake is withdrawn, likely somewhat depressed from how he seems out of step with much of the world, and he's not exactly well-prepared for a break in his routine or dealing with his daughter's life being upended. Kogonada does something kind of clere by have the flashback where he and Yang talk clearly about philosophical uncertainty memorable for a kind of funny bit even as the heavier material is being laid out, and it makes his baseline clear enough that one can see him fighting some of his less appealing traits and growing more open as the film goes on. His reluctance to tell Mika that Yang has effectively died is clear without needing to be underlined.

Mika's more extreme moments of acting out tend to be offscreen, but Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja is impressive in how she projects the right sort of stubbornness to make the audience believe it, the near-tween who is aware enough of the world to have hard questions but enough of a kid to get very frustrated. It's an intriguing contrast to the manufactured wisdom that Justin H. Min shows as Yang - he's built to be understanding and level and not condescending, but also aware that his understanding is hollow even if it's not fragile; he speaks with truth and conviction but maybe not authority. It doesn't hurt one bit to bring in Haley Lu Richardson, either; she presents Ada as someone who has a whole slew of her own issues that may have being a clone at their root but which also may not, and the guardedness of how she connects with Yang and Jake is genuine, even if it's not the center of the film.

Lest all this seem too heavy, it's worth mentioning that the film is a delight to watch. It may prime the audience for choppy waters at the very start, but it injects joyous energy right away with opening titles that double as a dance party. The production design team does really excellent work in making this future's look clean but not minimalistic or sterile; everything is easy to recognize and understand but more likely to include lively clutter than Apple-store emptiness. The film is also full of people having to find words to explain something that might not seem obvious to another, and that it almost always leads to kindness and empathy is something that sticks with the viewer.

If the film has a flaw, it's that one occasionally wonders a bit about what is going on off-screen - Jodie Turner-Smith's Kyra spends a little too much time being a foil for Jake rather than going through the same issues herself, for instance. It's perhaps an inevitable result of how precise, humane, and intriguing everything one does see is, and in that case, it's hardly cause for complaint.

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