The rise of machines that think, feel, and live alongside their flesh and blood is the result of the anthropomorphization of technology. It has been so long since the birth of technosapiens that the general public has forgotten, and strict governmental regulations make it difficult for many humans. All of these details make After Yang seem like another sci-fi feature about machines pondering what it means to be human. As the movie's opening credits roll, the story of After Yang is revealed to be a moving reflection on what it means to love someone when you know you're about to lose them.
The tale of Jake, Kyra, Mika, and their son is from Alexander Weinstein's short story. Though Mika and Yang see each other as siblings and share a comfortable, easy love, Jake and Kyra's feelings about their son are complicated by what Yang is and their decision to purchase.
Having someone around to watch over Mika is a huge benefit because Jake and Kyra work full time. One of the many different kinds of android siblings manufactured by the Brothers and Sisters Inc. megacorporation, Yang isn't just a caretakers. He is a teacher who provides Mika with a connection to her Chinese heritage and is a companion, a protector, and most importantly, a teacher. Neither of her parents feel equipped to do that. After years of living together as a family, their futuristic Benetton ad of a life begins to fall apart when Yang starts malfunctioning. Everyone is wondering if Jake can fix him.
Kogonada's script focuses on the family's grief and the emotional dystopia it creates within their home, which is remnants of the natural disasters and man-made calamities that once devastated the larger world of After Yang. It is heartbreaking to think that Yang might die. Jake is disturbed by the prospect of finding someone willing to fix him because it forces him to confront many difficult truths about himself as a father.
The family’s futuristic Benetton ad of a life falls apart when Yang starts malfunctioning
Race and racism loom large in the story of After Yang, even though the film is about death. Jake's search brings him to people like his neighbor George and a researcher specializing in technosapiens. Rather than using a metaphor for the oppression of minorities, After Yang explicitly identifies the widespread anti-Asian bigotry that defines its vision of a near-future America for what it is. The film raises a number of complicated questions about the characters and the world in which they live, as well as about the people of Chinese descent who the film presents as two embodiments of how people in this strange yet familiar world relate to and think about people of Chinese descent.
Compared to the short story, After Yang gives its main character a richer interior life that is explored through a number of flashbacks that reveal new shades of Min's performance. Min is more like a person butting up against limitations placed on him by those who can't bring themselves to see him as anything but a thing.
After Yang gives its titular character a richer interior life than the story it’s based on
The warmth and genuine exchange of love between Mika and Yang is contrasted with a thoughtful and significant uneasiness between Jake and Yang that speaks volumes about the latter, whose character is also expanded upon from his literary counterpart. You are meant to sympathize with Jake as he wrestles with the idea of dying and his growing emotional distance from his wife and daughter. Even though Jake sees himself as being better than his peers, a very overt kind of orientalism shot through with a warped sense of reverence is a large part of Jake.
Jake isn't exactly After Yang's villain, per se, even though some of the family's turmoil stems from his actions. Jake is just a person working through the messiness of his life and being reminded of the fact that he has and will continue to play a direct role in what becomes of his family as a unit. Jake is played by Farrell with an earnest adriftness evocative of someone on the verge of profound loss who is also realizing how out-of-touch he is with the people he cares for.
For all of its seriousness and focus on death, After Yang is a gorgeous film that frequently teases out just enough of its outside world to make you want to know more about it. In response to the hard edges of its fictional past, After Yang envisions a somewhat Her-like future marked by soft technology that is crafted with both humans and nature in mind. None of the film's techno-organic gadgets of tomorrow are very interesting because they have been around for a long time.
That unfazed-ness is one of the many ways that After Yang shows how a loved one can drain the world of its wonder and vibrance. It's those subtle details that make After Yang feel like a sci-fi masterpiece that understands the power of restraint and precision.
Haley Lu Richardson, Orlagh Cassidy, and Lee Wong are also in the film. The movie will be available to watch on Showtime on March 4th.