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Kogonada’s After Yang

Yang's dream of the butterfly

The question of whether a robot can have human feelings leads us in Kogonada’s second film into the exploration of human nature and the search for a sense of meaning.

Written by


Sep 25, 2022

© A24

Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) acquired a Technosapien—a lifelike and human robot—for their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who has been adopted from China. He is called Yang (Justin H. Min) and is supposed to facilitate her integration through his Asian appearance and his fund of Chinese "fun facts", as it is called in the film. He emerges as a big brother and cherished family member until one day he is broken. Being taken to the shop, the company dismisses repair options, only offering a recycling service to the family before Yang decomposes. Jake sets out to find repair options, including places out of the permissible, and discovers there is a way to enter Yang's memories. Using a reader, he is able to literally look into Yang's stored memory fragments through a pair of glasses—zooming in, fast-forwarding and rewinding like Deckard in Blade Runner.

With its vision of the future, After Yang clearly differs from the rain-soaked dystopia of Blade Runner. By contrast, it bears traits of an utopia in which it appears that the estrangement from nature has been overcome and in which nature is incorporated into a progressing technology. Self-driving cars are filled with plants, in general the world seems organic and warm.

The world is never depicted in an overdimensioned perspective, instead always from a human point of view, which makes the world feel detailed, but also genuine. Despite the futuristic technology, it never seems like a distant artificial vision.

Unlike many sci-fi films, this one doesn't deal with large-scale matters like world salvation, but with searching for interpersonal truth within a family. Using the speculative element of sci-fi, Kogonada takes a humanist look at contemporary human and family conflicts.

The Family

Before we can go into deeper meanings, we must first take a look at the family constellation: Colin Farrell's character Jake owns a tea shop. The tradition he cultivates with a visible dedication is apparently no longer valued. We see a customer who is appalled that Jake doesn't offer tea crystals—seemingly something in this future that has replaced conventional tea—and immediately decides to leave.

Business suffers and Jake's wife Kyra is forced into the responsibility of carrying the family financially. As a result, family cohesion is ailing. Neither of them find much time for their young daughter Mika.

All the more Mika's connection to Yang, who stands by her like a big brother, grows stronger. When classmates confront her with her being adopted, Yang helps her to understand the solidarity within the family.

Well aware of his existence as an artificial being, Yang himself is conscious of his limitations in not being able to comprehend certain emotional states. When asked if he is happy, Yang just answers: ‘I don't know if its a question for me’.

© A24

“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly”

— Yang quotes Chinese philosopher Laozi

The android's dream of being

It would be easy to label After Yang as an esoteric work that appears to submerge itself in its inherent poetry and formal beauty—the visual language, its warmth, the light and the aesthetically flawlessness evoke a visit to Aesop, especially at the beginning.

Matchingly, this is underpinned with unceasing mellow tunes that carry with them a feeling of sentimental gravitas of the past. With that aesthetic comes a certain preconception in the feeling it conveys.

This would be problematic if he were to dictate his ideas in addition to this sentiment, meaning that he would be limited in his themes and viewpoints. That said, Kogonada nourishes the ground of his film well enough to give the viewer room for countless thoughts and interpretations. As with Hirokazu Koreeda, Kogonada's focus of interest is less on death itself and more centred upon the people whose lives are touched by it.

There is something very poetic in the meditative imagery of After Yang. The images as well as the music constantly strive for a certain feeling of warmth and closeness. This affects the individual characters, but also the space. The time devoted to the mere depiction of space never seems cool or contrived. Here, Kogonada has something very Japanese about him and in this direction echoes Koreeda or Ozu, who have mastered establishing the intimacy of space.

In the film there is a conversation between Yang and the mother about butterflies. Yang quotes the Daoist philosopher Laozi: ‘What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.’

She then asks him if he believes that there is something after the end. Yang replies: ‘I don't know, I am not programmed to think that way’.

This conversation and the constant presence of butterfly images in the family's home recall Zhuangi's (another Daoist philosopher) famous parable of the butterfly dream amidst its poetic maelstrom.

In this, Zhuangzi dreams of being a butterfly only to wake up and wonder if it might not be the butterfly's dream to be Zhuangzi.

It is about the transformation and certainty of things, which are also central themes in After Yang. For no one in this film is it a secret that Yang is an artificial being. These beings have gained general acceptance in this world, but are seen more as functional products than human beings. After Yang explores the limbo between human values and mere existence—wherein is a soul founded? This exploration has an exchange in the question of what it means to be human. As Colin Farrell's character Jake delves into fragments of Yang's memories, we see Yang’s emotional ties to the family, but also how he has affected the lives of the family. Their subjective perceptions of these memories differ slightly from each other and are creatively overlapped from different perspectives in the editing.

© A24

“I wish I had a real memory of tea in China.”

— Yang played by Justin H. Min

Depth of a family and the identification in heritage

It is fascinating how complex the characters are written without us learning much about their past and their overall circumstances.
While we see Jake striving to keep the family together, we also see him broken and lost. As his passion in tea making has become an aqueduct of a bygone time, he also loses a sense of purpose in his life.

Seeking a repair for Yang, Jake in a sense comes to find the repair of himself. In one scene, Jake recalls a conversation with Yang about tea. Yang wants to know why he has dedicated his life to tea. While Yang shares his knowledge about tea, he also reveals that he cannot think beyond factual knowledge. He wishes he could understand the meaning behind Jake's enchantment for tea, as he is astonished by the beauty of tea making. These questions, in turn, bring back memories for Jake of why he chose this path for himself. Why is it so difficult to describe the taste of tea? In this conversation about the formless shape of this language and the struggle for words to describe the meaning behind it, both approach the essence of this very human striving after a sense of meaningfulness. The paradoxical circumstance of a robot programmed purely for function trying to fathom something that lies beyond mere function is captivating. The precision with which Kogonada is able to encapsulate all of this in such a short dialogue is breathtaking.

Furthermore, what is so intriguing about Yang's character is his pre-programmed Chinese identity. Besides his Asian appearance, he supposedly has a database full of information about the traditions and history of China. In the same conversation with Jake, however, Yang reveals to him, ‘I wish I had a real memory of tea in China.’ In a way, it's like an elaboration of the integration process of children who have grown up in a different country than their parents encountering the paradox of a national identity. It leads to the question of the foundation for such a form of identity.

At one point, Mika goes into Yang's empty room. Directed only to him and her memory of him, we hear her speak Chinese for the first time in the film. There are no subtitles. As a form of identity, language is shown here as something very intimate, and there is something beautiful about the fact that this privacy, like a treasured secret, has not been translated, but—except for those who understand the language—is kept intimate to Mika and her memory of Yang.

Just as directors like Peele and Aster use horror to tell human stories from contemporary perspectives, Kogonada uses elements of sci-fi to explore the timeless nature of being human. Much of the characters as well as the world created here are so richly layered that there is simply so much to discover and discuss. The questions around human nature have often been asked in the sphere of Sci-Fi. Where Blade Runner is Descartes, After Yang uses a distinctively poetic language of the Daoist in its formulation of similar questions.

As mentioned, it would be presumptuous to limit its imagery merely to its sheer elegance. It unmistakably resonates with the weight that the characters have to carry with them emotionally. After Yang is a meticulous study of a wounded family, each of whom, in their search for themselves, eventually finds their way back to themselves as a whole.

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