The South Korean filmmaker known as Kogonada, a man with one name, a mysterious background, and a body of work with roots in the cinematic video essay tradition, made his feature debut in 2017 with Columbus, which he wrote and directed. That was a thematically slight but visually sumptuous film, set amid the beautiful architecture of that Indiana town. Kogonada has taken a leap with After Yang, a sci-fi film that tells a heartbreaking story about love, family, technology, racial identity, adoption, and much more. After Yang is the type of film that seems like it might have been based on a Philip K. Dick story, but it derives from "Saying Goodbye to Yang," a more contemporary short story by Alexander Weinstein.
The film is set in a near-distant future in which lifelike robots can be hired by families as babysitters, and sometimes to function as siblings. That's the case with the main family, in which the parents (Colin Farrell and Jodie Smith-Turner) have an adopted daughter from China named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja.) The family has obtained a robot, Yang (Justin H. Min), who acts as both Mika's older brother and her gateway to her native culture. It's of a piece with recent discourse about transracial adoption, and what adoptees of color with parents of a different race have missed out on.
As After Yang begins, Yang has mysteriously de-activated, possibly permanently. As Farrell runs around town trying to see if he can be fixed, the family explores what his loss would mean, especially as they realize they’ve been letting the robot do a large chunk of the parenting. But soon they began to realize that their robotic family member may have had a life of his own. Where the film hits another gear altogether is when Jake, the Farrell character, gains access to Yang's memories, and the resulting sequence is so beautiful that I rewound it multiple times on the screening platform and watched it again. Another extended scene, involving tree branches, isn't far behind; hand cinematographer Benjamin Loeb every award this year. It's punctuated by a beautiful, piano-heavy score, one of the year's best, which is credited to Aska Matsumiya and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
You may have seen a viral clip from the film of the family of four dancing to a pop song, and the movie does include that. But it’s something of a misrepresentation of this film's actual look and feel. It's more melancholy than that. Last year's underrated animated movie, Ron's Gone Wrong, had something of a similar premise, about a boy acquiring a personalized robot friend the way one would obtain an Apple device, but After Yang's tone, ambition, and attitude are completely different. After Yang hits the general public Friday, with both a theatrical release through A24 and a bow on Showtime. This is a great film that deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.