AFTER YANG is a film steeped in humanity despite its gently dystopian subject: an android sibling of an adopted child. Koganada’s feature includes many thought-provoking strands focused on family privacy, technological dependence, and what makes someone – or something – belong to a family unit. Still, its imagination and sincerity when dealing with memory and what it means to have lived make it a slow-motion emotional gut punch.
The Yang of the title is the ‘Technosapien’ sibling of the adopted Mika. Mika’s parents – Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) – purchased Yang (Justin H. Min) to connect Mika to her Chinese heritage in a way the white Jake and black Kyra are unable to. When Yang malfunctions and fails, Jake seeks to have him repaired – no small task given Yang was purchased second-hand and is not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Caught in a frustrating melange of technical support issues, black market repair, and his daughter’s potential grief, Jake considers where Yang lay on the spectrum between conscious life and a mere device.
Although there are several touching moments in our journey to understanding whether Yang had any inner life, AFTER YANG also has a touch of peaceful, clean dystopia about it. An illegal repairman points out that if Yang is recycled, his memory banks contain “so much data on your family it will make your head spin”. After he extracts Yang’s memories for Jake, Kogonada presents these as snippets of video arranged (via Jake’s VR glasses) as stars in a constellation or galaxy. This arrangement hints at the complexity of Yang’s being and the centrality of memory formation to the idea of personality and consciousness.
“The notion that something so integral to a child’s life is a mere commodity to be coldly upgraded is brought into sharp relief when presented as an android sibling, especially one portrayed with the neat balance of warmth and stiltedness Justin H. Min manages.”
The way the script treats these memories also offers some comments on the influence of technology driven by private corporations. Yang’s memories are in a proprietary format, and it is technically illegal to extract them in the world of AFTER YANG. The notion that something so integral to a child’s life is a mere commodity to be coldly upgraded is brought into sharp relief when presented as an android sibling, especially one portrayed with the neat balance of warmth and stiltedness Justin H. Min manages.
The world of AFTER YANG is otherwise clean, and has an East-Asian-influenced neatness that belies the messy faultlines of the society it portrays. There is a sub-strand covering Jake’s prejudice towards clones (a seemingly common discriminatory attitude), and he is forced to confront it when it intersects with his quest to understand and repair Yang. This bias is not the only thing Jake finds himself contemplating, and a short monologue on his love of tea showcases Farrell’s measured performance and shows how much of himself he shared with Yang.
“…rather than putting forward a philosophical argument, AFTER YANG draws a complete emotional attachment to Yang’s ‘synthetic’ memory, highlighting whether anyone can usefully differentiate such a thing from ‘human’ memory. If the present cannot truly exist, then a person’s consciousness is defined by their collection of memories.”
AFTER YANG isn’t the only sci-fi work to deal with how memory communicates and forms the essence of personhood. In recent years alone, ARRIVAL and the first season of the TV adaptation of Westworld have used such ideas as thematic underpinnings. However, rather than putting forward a philosophical argument, AFTER YANG draws a complete emotional attachment to Yang’s ‘synthetic’ memory, highlighting whether anyone can usefully differentiate such a thing from ‘human’ memory. If the present cannot truly exist, then a person’s consciousness is defined by their collection of memories. The difficulties encountered by Jake as a result of technological walled gardens is an intelligent analogue for how much of our lives we lock up in consumer items, outsourcing our ‘human’ memory to the ‘synthetic’ substitutes of digital media.
The strengths of AFTER YANG lie in taking what is, at face value, a somewhat sterile technological concept and imbuing it with humanity. The film interrogates that notion of memory equating to consciousness by presenting Yang’s memories as life and the afterlife as the memories of those who knew him. The (sad) technological stranglehold on both is a depressing undertone.