After Yang ★★★
Availability: Widely available streaming, for rent or purchase, on fubo, Showtime, Amazon, Google, and many other platforms; see JustWatch here.
I remember, therefore I am
Jake and Kyra, an inter-racial couple, and their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika, inhabit a modest, comfortable, Scandinavian-modern home. She’s a professional something-or-other; he owns a tea shop. There’s not much to suggest that the film is set in the “near” future, except that vehicles are self-driving and—most important—Jake and Kyra have an AI nanny, their “son” Yang, who is Asian in appearance and has been purchased in part to introduce Mika to her ethnic heritage. The film opens over the credits with the “family,” including Yang, dancing in unison in their living room as participants in a contest with 33,000 other 4-some families. Not long afterward, Yang’s refurbished “system” fails—hence the title, “After Yang.” In this state, Yang “exists” only through the memories that a small box within him has selected and recorded (for 2 minutes each day).
Above, the 4-person family of - left to right - Jake (Colin Farrell), Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), Kyra (Jodi Turner-Smith), and AI "son" Yang (Justin H. Min), competing in an on-line 33,000 family dance contest.
“After Yang” is the latest of dozens, even hundreds, of films featuring creatures—robots, cyborgs (the “Robocop” sequence), humanoid computers (Hal, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), genetically engineered replicants (“Blade Runner,” 1982 and “Blade Runner 2049,” 2017), androids (“Android,” 1982), and here, a being operating through artificial intelligence. Often these composite forms are perceived as threatening: physically intimidating, taking away jobs, winning at chess, untrustworthy, out-of- control rogues. But “techno-sapien” Yang (Justin H. Min) is no menace. He’s kind, understanding, unassuming, accommodating, concerned with those around him, and helpful. So…what is Yang’s function in the film, beyond being a competent companion and teacher for grade-schooler Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja)?
Yang, right, is purchased
in part to introduce Mika
to her Chinese heritage.
The answer to that question is offered in two important scenes, basically flashbacks but presented in a New Age/sci-fi way, in which Jake (Colin Farrell) and then Kyra (Jodie Tuner-Smith) engage in conversation with the now-nonfunctional Yang, as seen through Yang’s memories. In Jake’s scene, perhaps the most revealing in the film, it’s all about his relationship to tea, with Yang’s humility and honesty putting into question Jake’s claim—what he wants to believe—that he is deeply and emotionally committed to tea (here, a metaphor), and that in the smell and taste of tea he can read and understand the land in which it was grown and the culture in which it participates. Programmed with only “fun facts about China,” Yang appears wistful in his desire to have a deeper understanding. In this moment, Yang seems more “human” than Jake, a sign that as a character, Jake’s “arc” is his journey to Yang’s humanity.
“There must be nothing for there to be something” - Yang.
Like Jake, Kyra seeks reassurance from Yang—on the existence of eternal life, no less, through the metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly—and again, Yang offers something less than comfort, adding enigmatically, “there must be nothing for there to be something” (to understand what it means to be human one must begin with the non-human—with Yang, and even, perhaps, “after” Yang). He can’t answer her existential questions—“I’m not programmed like that”—but in asking his own, he allows her (and Jake and Mika) to begin finding her own meaning to life.
Colin Farrell, left, is the dogged and at times submissive father and husband, Jake.
Jake’s and Kyra’s relationship is mechanical and transactional.
This existential theme has its parallel in the day-to-day lives of Jake and Kyra. They’ve hired Yang to help Mika appreciate her Asian roots (and to help her get a glass of water in the middle of the night), rather than do it themselves. Kyra talks about the need to interact with and care for Mika, especially with Yang out of the picture, but when Mika is in crisis at school, she’s too busy to pick up their child, and at one point, on a moment’s notice, leaves the house, announcing that she has to work at the office overnight. Jake’s and Kyra’s relationship is mechanical and transactional rather than intimate and loving; they seem to know what they need to do, how they need to act, but they can’t bring themselves to do it. That’s why they need those talks with AI Yang, who knows more about what it means to be human than they do.
Kyra's character is a waste of the dynamic Jodie Turner-Smith’s capabilities.
Despite the apparent complexity, it’s all a trifle obvious and overdone. Yang isn’t human, but he is. Jake and Kyra are human, but they aren’t. Kyra’s coolness, her abandonment of family responsibilities (she just talks the talk), and her consuming work position her as a bad-mother feminist, a stance the filmmaker probably didn’t intend. The character is a waste of the dynamic Jodie Turner-Smith’s capabilities, seen best in “Queen & Slim” (2019). More credible is Farrell’s dogged but at times submissive Jake, though it’s not clear why he fails to share with his spouse the results of his quest to have Yang repaired. Farrell’s role here is unfortunately similar to that in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a slightly befuddled, likeable guy. The most aware and sympathetic of the ensemble characters are Yang, despite and because of his limitations, and Mika, who first comes across as a brat, then as a child who understands what’s happening better than the adults. Min ably straddles the in-between-ness of his almost-human role, and Tjandrawidjaja is that rare good child actress.
Comedy shows up when Jake (far right) tries to get Yang (on table) repaired under his warranty, ending up in sketchy uncertified workshops.
Yang could be viewed as a 21st-century version of Mary Poppins.
“After Yang” joins several modern films in a “sci-fi lite” approach. This year’s “Nope” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” both approach the genre more mundanely, even playfully, than the gonzo productions in “Dune” (2021) and “Black Panther” (2018). The sci-fi in Korean-born, American director/writer Kogonada’s second feature film (the first was his critically acclaimed 2017 “Columbus”) barely rises above pretext; Yang could be viewed as a 21st-century version of Mary Poppins. And yet, though inevitably derivative, “After Yang” is an entertaining, occasionally moving (in a non-Hollywood way), sometimes funny (especially the search for repair shop warranties) and sometimes profound meditation on modern parenting, work/life balance, the world of hired help—and the nature of humanity.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja
Country: United States
Language: English (some Mandarin, not subtitled)
Runtime: 96 minutes
Other Awards: 7 wins and 23 other nominations to date, many for Farrell and for adapted screenplay (adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story "Saying Goodbye to Yang" in his 2016 book "Children of the New World")