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‘After Yang’ Gives New Life to Artificial Intelligence

After Yang begins with a dance. The opening credits of Kogonada’s new science-fiction film are an invigorating introduction: a montage of the movie’s entire cast executing a synchronized musical number in groups of four, as part of a virtual competition. The dance moves are rigid, though still delivered with flashes of improvisation, and the entire joyous sequence is the kind more movies could stand to indulge. But it has a thematic purpose as well: The scene begins and ends with a family unit that seems perfectly in sync, happy to plug along in a fixed routine, until suddenly one of them gets caught in a loop, repeating the same move over and over again, shattering that illusion.

The malfunctioning dancer is Yang (played by Justin H. Min), and the viewer quickly learns that he’s a robot, purchased to act as a sibling and babysitter to Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the adopted Chinese daughter of American couple Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). Based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein called “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” After Yang is a small-scale but impressive science fiction film, concerned with the genre’s most important question: As technology spreads wider and deeper into our lives, what does it mean to be human?

When Yang breaks down at the start of the film, Mika is unsurprisingly bereft—she’s a young girl who has lost one of her closest friends, and can only vaguely grasp that he’s not made of flesh and blood. Jake, although sympathetic, treats Yang’s malfunction more like the loss of a useful appliance, sighing and lugging the inert body to a repair store in the hopes of salvaging his investment. But the more he learns about Yang’s inner workings, the more Jake understands the extent to which this artificial being had a personality of his own. The tale is one of technological discovery, but After Yang’s metaphor is broad and powerful, prodding us to consider the lives around us that we might thoughtlessly overlook.

The film is in good hands with Kogonada, a visual essayist who made a startlingly assured debut in 2017 with Columbus, another stark and simple story of interpersonal connection. In that film, two people wander the architecturally fascinating streets of Columbus, Indiana, while discussing both their shared love of public space and their personal family dramas; perfectly composed shots mix with quiet moments of intimacy. After Yang has similarly painterly visuals, which help craft a lush vision of the future that only hints at past devastation. The script implies that some sort of war between America and China led to mass adoptions of Chinese children, and thus to the creation of beings such as Yang—who serve not just as companions, but as tools for exposing those kids to facts about their Chinese heritage.

That history is partly why Jake initially sees Yang as utilitarian: The robot’s like a combo of household servant and walking encyclopedia, a super-toy for Mika that can also help do the dishes. But a sentient computer can also disrupt our understanding of humanity. That staggering notion is one of my favorite science-fiction tropes. A film such as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. reacts with consistent horror to the idea that we could imbue machines with consciousness and thus curse them to the daily burden of having emotions, of experiencing love, as well as loss.

Kogonada approaches the same quandary from a more oblique angle. Jake asks technicians to crack open Yang’s brain, and he delves into the hard drives. To some of the characters he enlists for help, including a back-alley tech dealer named Russ (Ritchie Coster), the memory files encoded there are a terrifying example of overreaching surveillance, a piece of intricate manufacturing that infiltrates your home and spies on you for unknown reasons. To the museum curator Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), Yang’s digital archive is evidence of his consciousness, and signifies a new step in human evolution. Eventually, Jake meets Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), a mysterious character who built her own relationship with Yang, and he starts to plumb a past he didn’t know his “son” had.

After Yang is deliberately told, closely following Jake as he unfolds new bits of Yang’s memory and also realizes how distant he’s become from his wife and daughter. Farrell’s performance is sensitive and subtle, the furthest cry from his gleeful scenery-chewing in The Batman (which is ironically being released on the same weekend). Just as Kogonada slowly reveals new aspects of Yang to the viewer, he draws Jake out of the existential funk he’s mired in with similar care. The result is a pensive drama that plays like a quiet mystery, seeking to understand not just its human protagonist but the deeper underpinnings of all social connections.




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