After Yang is a science-fiction movie that follows the efforts of a family to repair Yang, an unconscious android who it treats as a son. The movie was written, directed and edited by Kogonada and stars Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith and Justin H. Min. It is based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein.
Though the parents purchased Yang for their daughter when she was a baby, they treated him as a son and a genuine part of the family. The movie primarily follows Jake, the father, as he tries to get Yang fixed and, in doing so, begins to better understand the android’s inner life and thoughts. He must cope with the stresses of a strained relationship with his wife and the distress of his daughter, who has lost a brother that looked after her. In the process of trying to repair Yang, Jake gains access to all of his memories, discovering that Yang had a private side and a depth that he was never aware of before.
After Yang is a film about family, but the cinematography creates a very intentional privacy screen between the family’s life and the audience’s watchful eyes. From the very first shot of the film, this is made clear to us, as we see the family posing for a photograph while constrained to the point of view of the camera.
For the rest of the movie, many of the scenes are shot from behind windows, at the threshold of doorways or through video-chat screens. The movie seems to be telling us that, though this is a film about a family, we are not part of that family and it deserves some privacy to its memories and grief.
The sci-fi nature of this film allows it to touch on the theme of memory and privacy in an interesting way. Jake literally has access to Yang’s memories, and we get to watch many of them play out in front of him. The visual representation of memory in this movie was beautifully done, artistically presenting each memory in a design reminiscent of a star or galaxy in a universe.
Though beautiful, it still felt a bit uncomfortable to watch Jake break Yang’s privacy by going through his memories. Jake sees Yang’s love for their family and his surrogate little sister but also discovers Yang’s past lives with other families and his romances on the side.
The movie also touches on themes of culture and race. The family is multiracial, having a white father, black mother and adopted Chinese daughter, Mika. I found the representation of a Chinese girl adopted into a non-Chinese family to be important, as it’s a specific instance of intersectionality that is common in America but rarely portrayed on screens, in books or in the media.
The movie explained that Yang was purchased to make Mika feel more comfortable and connected to her Chinese heritage. I was touched to hear them referring to each other as 哥哥 ("ge ge") and 妹妹 ("mei mei"), the Chinese words for older brother and little sister. Yang also taught Mika Chinese and comforted her when she had incidents with other kids at school asking about her “real parents”.
Additionally, the movie another dimension to examining what it means to be Chinese by looking at Yang’s experience with culture. Yang was programmed to know facts about Chinese culture and to look Asian but, being an android, Yang did not grow up in China. In memories, we watch him question his relationship with his culture and try to understand what it means to be Asian. While androids are a piece of science fiction, his struggle is still relevant and relatable for many American-born Chinese (ABC) people.
While this was valuable representation, it was somewhat damaged by the distancing effect of the cinematography. Because the movie never allowed us into the family’s lives, an adopted Asian person or ABC isn’t allowed to connect with that representation as much, leaving us stranded in the hall, just trying to peek in.
But I still highly suggest this movie. It’s a quiet film with great sound design that fans of ASMR would definitely appreciate. The themes of grief, memory and culture are well portrayed, and every scene is beautifully shot. It’s on SHOWTIME now and only has a runtime of about an hour and a half, so I highly suggest putting on a pair of headphones, grabbing a soothing cup of tea and watching it for yourself.