Monday, 23 May 2022

After Yang (2022) - Movie Review

A film that gets described as a “metaphysical science fiction drama” in its Wikipedia page is like a siren call to me. And the story attached to it certainly doesn’t disappoint from that perspective, exploring what happens to a family when their adopted son passes away. Well, not so much ‘passes away’ as he shuts down and won’t turn back on, as this is set in a near-future where a company exists that basically sells artificial siblings wholesale, and said child (the titular Yang, played by Justin H. Min) is a ‘technosapien’ that couple Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) originally bought so that their other adopted child Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) had someone she could learn about Chinese culture from.

While there are aspects of writer/director/editor Kogonada’s approach to science-fiction that gave me unpleasant flashbacks to Downsizing and The Discovery, which represent a quantity-over-quality methodology that just doesn’t work for me, it is used far better here than in those other examples. Kogonada’s scripting brushes on a lot of different topics, from family structures, to adoption, to the ethics of artificial life, to the importance of memories, to the inevitability of death, but it does so in a naturalistic manner, exploring each topic in turn rather than just piling them together.

And the ideas expressed through those topics are quite intriguing on top of that. The scene where Yang explains to Mika about being an adopted child through a botanical analogy makes for one of the sharpest explanations for how foster families work that I’ve yet come across, and I like the way it gets into the larger notions of androids as a standard part of life on Earth. Admittedly, it took a bit for me to stop having El-P’s Stepfather Factory playing in my head, but the main family unit is made up of quite compelling parts and the depictions of emotional distance and differences in grieving processes helped keep the emotional engagement up.

But honestly, more than anything else that gets tackled here, it’s the exploration of memory that ends up yielding the greatest rewards for this production, both within the story and on the technical side of things. A good amount of the film consists just of Jake (and, in turn, the audience) watching montages made up of snapshots of Yang’s memories, and the film craft on these scenes is fucking incredible. DP Benjamin Loeb’s shot composition and framing is already quite lovely in a very slice-of-life sense, but Kogonada’s chopping and arranging of those shots is on a whole other level.

His past experience as a video essayist, highlighting the work of directors like Stanley Kubrick, Terence Malick, and Yasujirō Ozu, shows through here in how the frame becomes this psychedelic trip through Yang’s galaxy of memories. Brief moments of life overlapping and bleeding into each other, where the initial importance of which moments have been captured and preserved becomes irrelevant next to the fact that these moments themselves are preserved. At least to me, this is a quite fascinating way to look at the act of filmmaking: As a selection of documented moments, preserved as visual art, where the preservation itself is what makes it art. A very Linklater way of looking at it, which also makes sense considering Kogonada did an essay on his work as well.

It's the kind of low-key, social sci-fi that engages with similar exploration of the relationship between us and our technology that iconified Black Mirror (The Entire History Of You and Be Right Back in particular came to mind while watching this), but without the crushing bleakness or overwhelming cynicism. Instead, it aims for a more domesticated kind of warmth, where the relationships between people (artificial or otherwise) is what pushes the drama forward. It may not do absolute justice to its topics, as the exploration of memory is what sticks out the most here (at least for me), but the whole package is still quite good as a broad existential essay about what constitutes ‘life’ as we now know it.

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