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After Yang review – tear-jerking sci-fi lays bare the heart of an AI

Kogonada’s second feature is an exquisitely acted, low-key drama that makes the technical into something distinctly human

In an opening dance sequence, which is about as energetic as Kogonada's sophomore feature After Yang gets, numerous families compete in choreographed routines and are eliminated if they fall out of sync with one another. This harmonised sense of family is what lies at the core of the writer-director's phenomenal follow-up to Columbus, a film that is just as poignantly inquisitive and gorgeous to look at as his debut.

The film, based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein, is set in a time where “techno-sapiens” – ultra-realistic, human-looking AIs – are integrated into family units for assistance, educational, or companionship purposes. It is a mix of all three that lead two parents to adopt an AI they name “Yang” (brought to life by Justin H. Min). Soft-spoken Jake (Colin Farrell) and his pragmatic wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) purchase Yang for their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) with the original aim of teaching Mika about her Chinese heritage. Soon, though, he's integrated into the family as a kind of older brother.

Though a pet often acts as the first lesson in heartbreak for a child, Mika’s experience comes all too soon when one day Yang malfunctions. The bereavement is like water on the family's circuit board, leaving them stunned that the futuristic technology supposed to outlive them has failed to do so. Jake begins tirelessly to try and repair Yang, receiving contradictory advice from repairmen who want to salvage the android for parts and a museum curator (Sarita Choudhury) who wants to preserve Yang in his current form. But Mika just wants her beloved Yang to come home.

In trying to bring Yang back to life, however, Jake discovers he can preview the AI's “beta archive,” consisting of his precious memories, and is therefore able to relive his own past through the eyes of another. Finding himself suddenly addicted to the voyeuristic act of viewing his family through Yang’s eyes, Jake’s dissociative remembrance, unlocked in this fortress of memory, is encased with wisps of nostalgia in cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s stunning frames.

In one key moment, Jake watches a memory of tea tasting through the AI's perspective, the delicate murmurs of Kogonada’s layered soundscape accompanying Yang as he express the limits of his quantitative-like memory. Because Yang, more than anything, yearns to feel. And once again, Kogonada sets out to explore what it is to be human. This wandering exploration of identity also sees the filmmaker reunite with the magnetic Haley Lu Richardson, who starred in Columbus and here plays Ada, a clone who befriends Yang and holds knowledge about his existence that Jake longs to discover.

Building the world of the film, Alexandra Schaller’s production design intricacies are exquisite, imbuing the desaturated aesthetic with fine-tuned details, from moss-trimmed vehicles to shelves lined with loose leaf tea. Debating the ethics surrounding Yang's existence with himself, Jake sits with Kogonada’s camera lingering on his sunken features as, out of frame, mother and daughter discuss the possibility of Yang never coming back. Like much of After Yang, it is a slow-moving sequence, but intentionally so, this minimalist sci-fi meditatively approaching notions of loss with open-hearted ardour.

Kogonada’s film arrives at a time when we’re aware that our laptops know more about our interests than we do and our phones preserve images more comprehensively than our own memories. Yet, this investigation of humanity avoids the sinister instincts of Black Mirror. Instead it finds real emotion in ideas about innovation and shows that Yang truly knew the heart of this family. Kogonada’s visual poeticism soars through Yang’s memories yet feels methodical in the present, where metaphysical questions of identity are brought into sharp focus.

Quietly contemplative in all the right ways, After Yang seeks not to stun with sci-fi spectacle but to traverse the relationship between the human and the technological with gentle power. It is a transfixing movie that questions both the cynic and dreamer in us all.

After Yang was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema on 23 September.

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