Posted on Monday, July 12th, 2021 by
After Yang begins inside a tea shop, an austere space with a decidedly Japanese aesthetic. Jake (Colin Farrell) greets a patron who has walked down the stairs, seeking out “tea crystals” for instant pleasure. Explaining that the local supermarket may carry such convenient goods, and that instead he’s got preparations that may require more effort but may be more rewarding, she leaves frustrated, wondering how someone can survive by not giving the customer what they already want.
This interaction in many ways echoes the slow, methodical, yet absolutely stellar cinema of the mononymic Kogonada, the Korean-American video essayist and Criterion supplement master whose Columbus was one of the triumphs of Sundance 2017. His latest, After Yang, is a near-future tale of a remarkable family, with Jake joined by his wife of African descent Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), raising their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). They buy a second-hand “technosapien,” essentially a life-like android or replicant, that’s named Yang (Justin H. Min) to instill in their daughter knowledge of her Chinese heritage.
Told through a series of quiet conversations, either in simply staged rooms or while traveling in driverless vehicles, there’s little in the way of kinetic flourish to either storytelling or the performances. Yet Kogonada’s precision, akin to the blend we witness the master tea maker assembling, prodding gently with a wooden utensil to craft a perfect mix of ingredients, results in a heady brew that’s both intoxicating and delicious.
Farrell has often been drawn to offbeat dramas like this, as evidenced by his work with another Cannes favorite Yorgos Lanthimos. Here he brings more of his trademark subtlety of performance, managing in often elegant ways to be paradoxically comforting and surprising at the same time. Turner-Smith is both formidable and nurturing, and Min’s role as the aloof android would easily appear to be rote, but here it’s injected with the humanity of the character dialed in perfectly. Tjandrawidjaja is the precocious heart of the narrative, and here too Kogonada manages to elicit a performance perfectly attuned to the story’s requirements. Haley Lu Richardson plays Ada, whose storyline becomes entwined with the family, and the ever welcome Clifton Collins Jr. plays George, their gormless but well meaning neighbor.
Written by short-story author Alexander Weinstein and based on his own novel, the script delights every moment that genre expectations are undercut. Each moment where you’d expect some emotional explosion, dire conspiracy sidebar, or even expected violence, you’re instead treated to something that feels very real and very earned, making the near-future setting’s fantastic technologies feel all the more quotidian. This is a film whose absences drive much of its pleasure, from the memories of characters and times now gone, to the lack of these story beats that a lesser script (or a more twitchy studio) would add to spice things up.
Instead, we have a film whose pace may be quieted by, nonetheless is driven forward in both an entertaining and intellectually stimulating fashion. This is no small magic trick, and just as with Columbus, it’s clear that Kogonada is gifted at doing contemplative without compromising audience engagement. At a festival full of meanderings in place of genuine plot, all to occupy time rather than drive a story forward in a cinematically compelling way, it’s certainly worthy of celebration with a master filmmaker can lead us along in a gentle but guided fashion.
Like the tea, this is a film to be sipped and savored, to appreciate the ritual of watching, and to be wowed by the quiet yet eloquent execution. It’s a film that borrows liberally from the genre, yet does so not in a winking fashion, but more like putting on a comfortable garment, something to drape over oneself in a way both warming and familiar. Yet After Yang still feels extremely fresh and present, further cementing Kogonada as a true talent to cherish, and presenting a storyline that may be slightly bitter to some craving the more conventional crystals, but for those with a taste for such a blend they will find the experience nothing short of thrilling.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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About the Author
Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.