The lexicon of the ‘robot’ – taken from the Polish word for ‘worker’ – has gone through multiple evolutions and conceptual changes, frequently reflecting the concerns of the times. From android to replicant, it has proven an effective mirror, a Turing test to try and figure out the essential element of being human; behind which lies the anxiety that there is nothing essential at all about being human. As one character in After Yang puts it, Yang – the technobeing of the title – wasn’t interested in what it meant to be human so much as what it meant to be Chinese. There is no essential core; just what’s in our pockets.
At an unspecified time in the future, technobeings (sometimes derisively known as “bots”) are used for a variety of purposes and Yang has been bought by a family to provide their adopted Chinese daughter with a sibling who can connect her to her origins. Colin Farrell plays the father, Jake, a man who owns a tea shop that insists on traditional leaf tea. A man for a yen for the authentic, he is also uncomfortable with clones. His wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) seems to have a more high-powered job and judging by his lack of customers and the affluence of their surroundings is the breadwinner.
However, they’ve saved money on Yang, buying a refurbished one – “it’s certified” dad insists – and sure enough he has broken down in a way that they dread might be irreparable, leaving their young daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjajazu) distraught. In his search to find a way of repairing Yang, Jake finds himself discovering via Yang’s recorded memories a secret life of love and grief. He also begins to understand himself a little more and begins to feel genuine grief for a being who was also for all intents and purposes his surrogate son.
This is the second feature by Kogonada, whose debut film Columbus represented an impressive arrival. This is a beautifully formal piece of work, with the freer moments coming ironically from the memory of the technosapien which Jake accesses via some google glass style specs. Jake’s own reality is an amber-coloured twilight. The future is imagined as a world of self-driving cars, Japanese and Scandinavian influenced interiors and a fetish-like love of wood and grass, which perhaps hints at some offscreen environmental catastrophe. Everything is seen in the background with no big establishing shots or newsreaders expositioning all over the place. This is a lived-in world where kids have to be picked up from school and new technologies have brought about fresh problems.
At its heart is a quiet investigation of the human which avoids the cliches and the Philip K. Dick grand twists. It’s also refreshing to see a version of the future not dictated by the grim pessimism that Black Mirror revels in. After Yang is a moving, subtle and grounded piece of science fiction that doesn’t necessarily get to the core, but certainly hits the heart.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty