Sundance 2022: After Yang – A Soft Song of Tender Memory

What a caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.

In the starry cosmos of our hazy memories, it’s the liminal moments that linger: looping visions of warmth and ephemeral emotion. On a starry night, an owl hoots softly in the distance behind a sweet smile. Soft neon lights illuminate a tender memory of reflective joy. Birds and bugs chirp and sing in the swaying grass and shady branches, overlooking a gentle family gathering. It’s the most innocuous things that stay with us, these little flashes of simple bliss. The ephemeral conversations that stick, the glances, the smiles, the voices. Just those few words that bubble to the surface and bring a tearful smile, a memory of when you truly felt the presence of someone else, that moment when it felt like you exchanged a piece of each other. It’s so human, memory, these things we hold so dear to us but can’t quite explain why. It just is, our brains inexplicably imprinting these seemingly random moments that don’t feel important until we think back on them.

Achingly heartfelt and just as much of a tearfully warm embrace as Kogonada’s previous film, Columbus (2017), After Yang presents the kind of future that science fiction often lacks, somewhere nestled comfortably between a crushingly dismal dystopia and an impossibly glistening utopia. It lives and breathes with just enough thoughtful realism to remain persistently tangible, a world wherein we’ve seemingly reconciled with our destructive relationship to nature, and have returned to peacefully coexisting within its lush green swaddle. But, also a world that maintains the permeating stench of capitalism; a world more interested in siphoning from your wallet than soothing your wounded soul.

Though, despite the lingering persistence of these larger institutional frustrations, corporate scrounging that fails to serve the humanity of its consumers, After Yang is not a film that is insistent on blame. In fact, it plays to the direct opposite. Kogonada eloquently intersects technology and humanity as we’re introduced to Yang (Justin Min), a “technosapien,” who served as a cultural sibling to central couple Jake (Calin Farrell) and Kyra’s (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Opening the film with a bombastic and upbeat dance number set to a bubbling pop song and dazzlingly vibrant colors, the immediate explosive joy is quickly undercut by the malfunctioning of Yang, a tear in the fabric that Jake is desperate to fix in an effort to repair a family he’s been slowly slipping away from.

Yang’s core is irreparably damaged, and there is no simple fix through standard means. Jake feebly attempts to acquire any substantive assistance from the original manufacturer. But, they are all but useless, too mired in predatory business practices to see a grieving man who is watching a family member fade into the ether as more than a potential influx of cash. Not financially prosperous enough to follow through with the prohibitively costly repairs necessary, he seeks solace in the kindness of underground mechanics, sympathetic to his cause but nonetheless unable to repair the fundamental failures of Yang’s system.

As it dawns on Jake that he must begin to reconcile with this crushing loss, he is given a final glimmer of hope as museum researcher, Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), discovers Yang was an experimental design, a technosapien with the potential to capture and store memories, with the ineffable criteria of “Whatever he feels is important to keep.” She extracts his stored bank of memory data and offers it to Jake as tender consolation, noting its potentially massive scientific ramifications. And so it is After Yang, a soft and gentle reconciliation with loss alongside the consistently evocative sentimentality of memory as a beautiful document of life lived. Yang’s stored moments of earnest simplicity conjure overlapping memories with each family member, all reflecting tearfully on their shared moments with a dearly held loved one.

Words echoing as the conversation lilts through the halls of memory, moments surface that feel so wonderfully intimate, soulful exchanges that manage to extract a great deal of complexity exploring our own human nature and desires alongside our relationships with technology, refracted through prismatic dialogue and touching performances. It all seems to come to a final moment of peaceful rest as Kyra reflects upon a conversation with Yang where they exchanged their thoughts on the nature of existence and passing on, reframing what may seem like tragedy into something wholly different yet infinitely beautiful. Justin Min’s perfect affectation of steady, soft speech perfectly poses questions of how far we can ever truly design and program true humanity, but Jodie Turner-Smith’s quietly tearful breakdown at the solace he offers makes those questions seem entirely trivial. Life is transitory and ephemeral, and everything from the soil beneath to the arching sky above will exist before and after. What moments will you choose to take with you?

9/10

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Film on the brain and neon in my veins.

Film critic, rad dude, and enthusiast of all things.

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