Film, at its core, is about finding reality in unreality. A shadow covering half a person’s face, body sprawled across a carefully worn couch, spouting manicured lines while a melodic underlay constructs your mood, leading you through tidy emotional beats while boring necessities like greetings and travel are stripped away. The artifice is not hidden but ignored as long as you stay within agreed upon bounds of acceptable disbelief, which shift and sway as the medium evolves.
Most filmmakers stick to safe formulas, constructions they know modern audiences will swallow easily. But not Kogonada.
A mere two films into his career and he’s already established his own style, a mix of old standards and thoroughly modern influences that disregards popular norms in favor of a relaxed pace and an eye for the strangely beautiful. It is, rather boldly, artificial, and not in the way we’ve grown accustomed to.
There’s a danger when one disregards the accepted level of artifice of being labeled a try-hard, of your film being encased in a cold shell. You can certainly feel Kogonada trying, in the same way you feel the effort of Wes Anderson or Denis Villeneuve in their meticulous films, but instead of pushing you away all that work pulls you in closer, holding you tight in its hypnotic embrace.
Kogonada has made two small but lush films. 2017’s Columbus saw John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson wander through the modernist architectural hub of Columbus, Indiana, the beautifully constructed but sturdy legacies of men long since dead seemingly destined to outlive their own crumbling family structures. From that auspicious debut he moves into the slightly flashier realm of science fiction, his playground less defined by what already exists but his concerns just as small and personal as ever.
Most of the film concerns Colin Farrell’s Jake trying to salvage the wreckage of his robot son, Yang (Justin H. Min). In this unspecified future, robots have fleshy, human coverings and fill holes within families. Jake and his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), felt they needed a cultural connection for their adopted chinese daughter, so Yang was purchased to serve as a font of Chinese facts and a recognizable face as she grows.
The very concept invites questions of identity, which the film doesn’t shy away from. What is cultural heritage and how important is it, really? Is it there at birth or can you learn it, shape it to the specificities of your own experience and temperament, particularly if you’ve been unbound from easily defined lineages? A robot that quotes Chinese proverbs and accompanies the girl on nightly trips for water can’t entirely provide it, unless the two are creating their own culture, the integration of technology and humanity forming an entirely new social dynamic to be passed down.
There’s shades of Her in the film’s relationships, which defy what is possible with modern tech (although none of it seems too far off). And like that film, After Yang spins off in unexpected directions to tell a rattlingly human story.
A large portion of the film is told in flashback, or more precisely through peeks at Yang’s stored memories. While technicians try to save as much of Yang’s body as they can (who turns out to be a very special boy), Jake is given a drive with seconds-long snips from Yang’s life. Reviewing them through an interface that blends the hardness of science with the etherealness of fantasy, its physical space evocative of the personal confusion and veiled threat of the game Control, Jake and Kyra must confront the life they brought into their home.
Recently, I was trying to describe to a coworker why I do all this movie scribbling. We landed on a common theme I enjoy: the unknowability of another person. Even when intimately close, there’s parts of our family members, our lovers, even ourselves that we can’t access. We can be close in physical space but miles apart in our mental ones, and as Jake and Kyra explore Yang’s memories, they are confronted with one such cavernous space, their own roles within much smaller than they anticipated.
Intricacies are rolled out slowly, and the questions they encounter remain, for the most part, unsolved. Kogonada isn’t interested in capturing Yang as a whole because he knows it would be impossible. Instead, he pokes at insecurities and comforts we can neither fully grasp nor avoid, and through a lingering legacy, allows Yang to fill one last hole in the family.
Also, Farrell does a very good Werner Herzog impression. That isn’t as complicated as what Kogonada pulled off, but it’s still impressive.
Release: available in theaters and on Showtime March 4th, 2022
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Haley Lu Richardson