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‘After Yang’ Asks: What Makes Us Human? Can Robots Have Feelings? Why Are You Crying?

It makes sense to start with the dance. After all, After Yang — the chin-stroking, heartbreaking, very humanistic post-human sci-fi weepie from the writer-director Kogonada — is a movie about life as much as it is about death, so we should begin with its most lively, oddly exhilarating sequence. (It hits theaters and begins streaming on Showtime today.) A married couple, Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), are fretting over their busy schedules. He runs an artisanal tea shop in an unnamed metropolis in some not-so-distant future, and business could be better. She has a make-or-break presentation coming up at her corporate job. Neither of them feel like get to see their young daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), nearly enough. They vow to carve out a more reasonable work-life balance as they dress in shiny, matching jumpsuits. The two join a similarly attired Mika in their living room; a young man in his mid-twenties, same uniform, stands to the trio’s left. The four of them face the camera. A voice announces that the family dance-off is about to begin.

Then a driving, beeping, pulsing EDM track starts playing as the quartet wave, gyrate, jump, bend, kick in perfect sync. The more the music picks up, the faster they move. We see more families dancing together, against different primary-colored backgrounds; if you’ve got a keen eye, you’ll notice Sarita Choudhury, Clifton Collins Jr. and Haley Lu Richardson among the participants. As the voice cries out instructions (“Take flight!” “Fight time!” “Collect the TNT!” “The hitchhiker!”), we rhythmically cut to each of the groups hopping and bopping together. You feel like you’re watching well-oiled machines in motion: four bodies, one unit. Everyone shakes, shimmies, slides in perfect harmony. Everyone looks serious, yet somehow joyous. Then you hear “TERMINATED,” and we’re instantly back in that living room. Someone missed a beat. Game over.

It’s there and gone, just long enough to run underneath the opening credits, and yet this montage of movement — can you even call it a musical number? — stays with you throughout Kogonada’s sophomore feature. There’s a vibe around those scenes that feels both twee and profound, heady yet slightly tongue-in-cheek, totally engaging and elating even as gives off a sort of computerized chill. It is, in a sense, the movie in a two-minute nutshell, which attempts to balance a riot of sometimes complementary, occasionally conflicting tones while trying to maintain a pulse. Yet it’s that pulse that will end justifying all the sound and formalism on display, which is admittedly eye-popping even when it inspires eye-rolling. It’s incredibly tempting at times to think of this adaptation of Alexander Weinstein’s short story as mere hipster decor porn. Check the cynicism for a second, however, and you start to realize that the main question here is not, “What does it mean to be human?” or “Do androids dream of electronic afterlives?” but “Why, exactly, am I crying so hard?”

The dance-off also serves as a catalyst that will set this to-be-or-not-to-be parable into gear. Once Jake and Kyra’s group have been eliminated from the competition, they and the youngster begin arguing over who messed up. The man next to them, however, is still dancing. Or rather, he can’t stop dancing. He’s Yang (Justin H. Min), the family android; it’s the custom for parents with adopted Chinese children to purchase a mechanized brother or sister to make them feel less isolated. And something appears to be a little…wrong with Yang. Soon, he powers down into what they call an “off-state,” much to the dismay of Mika. Because Yang was not a new model when Jake procured him all those years ago, and the tiny second-hand shop that sold him the iSibling is long gone, their warranty on him is useless. The original manufacturer will likely just scrap him if they turn Yang in for a “replacement.” You do not just recycle family, however.

After going to a black-market repairman (Ritchie Coster) and consulting a museum curator (Choudhury) who specializes in studying “techno sapiens,” Jake decides to let them crack open the android’s core — a big no-no, given the way that the company who makes these companions are extremely protective and litigious when it comes to their products. (Lurking underneath the surface of this philosophical musing about the nature of being is a slightly serrated take on the way Big Tech exercises an iron fist around the goods and services of everyday living.) What they find is a nugget-like “memory bank” that contains five-second recordings, little snippets of quotidian details: a child running in a field, a shaft of afternoon light streaming through a window, the moments before a family portrait is snapped. As Jake pores through these, he notices a young woman (Richardson) keeps popping up in these nano-movies. She may be the key to something in Yang’s past. Or she may be the object of his affection, which suggests that these androids might have more in common with their human counterparts than previously thought.

There’s more here, which includes some moral handwringing over preserving Yang for a possible exhibit (these ‘bots decompose once they shut down), and glancing mentions of eco-catastrophes and clones, and the fact that Jake is experiencing his own crisis of faith around their loved one shuffling off this mechanical coil. Kogonada had initially made a name for himself by crafting video essays centering on analyzing visual aesthetics in the work of master auteurs, before transitioning to narrative storytelling with his delicate character study-cum-architecture survey Columbus (2017). His follow-up is far more ambitious, tapping into the modern subgenre of existential emo-sci fi that views a dying HAL 9000 singing “Daisy” as a sort of Rosetta stone. (See: the filmography of Michel Gondry.) But it’s also a movie cluttered with futuristic details like self-driving cars while prizing symmetrical compositions and meticulous production design in a way that suggests there’s still an analytical essayist’s eye at work, still someone behind the camera who wants where something is within an image to matter as much as who or what is in the image itself. As much, or possibly even more. Say what you will about After Yang‘s beautiful, occasionally overworked Metro-Boho Middle Class 2049 look: It’s a movie with truly excellent feng shui.

But it’s the memory aspect of this story that Kogonada recognizes, rightfully, as the true emotional center of his story. It’s to After Yang‘s credit that it’s the last-act emphasis on those brief filmed clips — moments that the title character found significant enough to be considered worth recording and remembering forever, and ever — that may cause you to choke up a bit. Represented as tiny constellations of stars within a mental galaxy, these seemingly forgettable instances of everyday glances, giggles, silent contemplating, and connecting with others demonstrate that an “artificial” intelligence can possess a very real soul after all. That includes wondering what lies beyond. When asked why he doesn’t worry about the possibility of the end being the end, full stop, Yang replies, “There’s not something without nothing.” These memories hold weight because they are the fleeting somethings he knows will one day be gone like tears in the rain. They are also what make life worth living.

And as you find yourself instinctively reviewing those own seemingly insignificant moments in your own life, the ones that you hold so dear, while following this cyber-compassionate movie to its conclusion, it’s almost impossible not to be moved by the long game that the film’s creator is playing. It’s both a parable and a prompt. The idea that life is finite, and that it must be appreciated and savored and lived before it’s gone, is not new. After Yang, however, wants to gently suggest that this key part of the human condition may not be limited to humans after all. Flesh and bone, silicon and Pentium chips — the dance eventually stops for everyone. There may not be an “after.” There is definitely, however, a here and now.


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