Sundance 2022 review: After Yang (Kogonada)

“Our scars, our fears, our desires, they are all made and affected by our memories, and in this sense Kogonada’s After Yang offers a different approach to a common scenario in dystopian narratives.”

In Anne Carson’s poem The Glass Essay a mother says to her daughter, “You remember too much. Why hold onto all that?”, to which the daughter replies, “Where can I put it down?” There is no easy way to face the question because one cannot put down something that is not carried inside, but rather shaping and reshaping who we are, constantly. Our scars, our fears, our desires, they are all made and affected by our memories, and in this sense Kogonada’s After Yang offers a different approach to a common scenario in dystopian narratives about a future in which there’s barely any or no distinction between humans and androids, here called techno sapiens. It understands that we already have the film camera that gave us photography and cinema; we already have the internet as this meta-universe in which nothing really disappears and memories linger on. To put it in different words, we are nostalgic beings, always looking back, always in fear of disappearing.

So, this is the story of a family: Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). But this is also the story of Yang, a second-hand techno sapiens that was supposed to be a link between their kid and her Chinese heritage. Symbolically enough, this reused model malfunctions and stops working because he has been recording memories from the previous houses he lived in. His program collapsed and he died crushed by the weight of too much past. The future can’t come if there’s no place for it to grow. Jake begins a personal odyssey to somehow bring Yang back to life, and in a film about memories it is Yang’s death or his absence of future that triggers the events of the narrative. Mika is suffering, grieving for the person she considered to be her brother. Yang was just like her, adopted, brought intentionally into the family. Kyra is distant from her husband and doesn’t know how to act around her kid and her feelings for something that used to live in the liminal space between being and thing. Jake, on the other hand, notices a void – brilliantly translated into images by Kogonada through a minimalist set design and open shots – that he didn’t notice before.

Thus, like a person watching a film, Jake watches Yang’s previous lives, repeats some moments, zooms in on others, tries to locate the actors in the memories and connect the dots in order to create a complete narrative. Here it is worth mentioning that while Jake goes through Yang’s remembrances, Yang’s body is constantly being opened and analyzed by technicians and museum curators. We, the audience, are stuck in this cycle; we keep on watching Jake watching Yang’s recordings. Perhaps this is also a film about the tenderness and violence present in the act of watching someone else’s life. Again, there is a narrative in the things we tell but there is also a narrative marked on our bodies. The question that remains is not if it’s possible to put some of our past away; maybe it is simply a matter of understanding that no story belongs to a single person, that our memories are as much our own as they are shaped by the people around us and our context. So the real question is: can we make peace with that? Regardless of one’s answer, that doesn’t mean this is a painless process, or even an ethical one, something that Kogonada’s screenplay acknowledges by leaving it to Jake to decide whether or not to show Yang’s body and memories in a museum, even though he never shied away from looking at them inside his own home because he desired to do so. Or as a different poem, this time by Eduardo C. Corral, goes:

Desire with no future,
bitter longing –
I starve myself by yearning
for intimacy that doesn’t
and won’t exist.