A24’s new sci-fi movie will make you cry

After Yang, a dystopian story about a broken cyborg and his grieving real-life family, just premiered to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival.

by Douglas Greenwood
|
09 July 2021, 10:21am

A24 Films

Science fiction is seldom seen as a genre that tugs on the heart strings. It is famously cold: steel grey vistas and robotic protagonists usually exist in situations where the real-life stakes are low. It is fantasy. But the latest A24-produced movie from South Korean director Kogonada offers a softer, greener and more sympathetic alternative. It’s called After Yang, and after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it left a whole auditorium weeping over the mark left on a family by a bloodless android.

Sci-fi seldom feels this fleshy and real. In After Yang, parents Jake and Kyra, played by Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith respectively, are forced to decide the fate of Yang (played by Justin Min), a cyborg they purchased second hand to care for their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika ( Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).

The family are at a loss: Yang has become a somewhat-child and sibling to them, part of their family unit and intrinsic in Mika’s upbringing. But he is, after all, a lifelike robot, and when he breaks down he’s taken to a Genius Bar-like tech store rather than a hospital. There they discover that, though his body may be failing, his memories can be held onto, and reflected upon.

Viewing the short clips, that are shown from the perspective of two different memories, fuels an existential awakening for Jake, who realises that the android living under his own roof may have had a life and a past of his own, capable of feeling all of the emotions humans can too. What follows is a lustrously shot and meditative movie about family, identity and what our purpose is as people.

The movie, which A24 have been a key party of since before shooting began, also stars Haley Lu Richardson as a mysterious and elusive cloned girl who feels ostracised for being cloned, but may have found a friend in Yang before his body shut down.

The last movie to successfully make something interesting out of our horrifying AI future was 2014’s Ex Machina, starring Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander as a tech programmer and robot taking part in an experiment to figure out how sentient machines ‘feel’. But After Yang, in comparison, never paints its android protagonist as an outlier. Instead, he feels so assimilated into the family it follows that unpacking his fate feels like an act of human grief that may or may not be reversed.

The movie also pulls off the iconic feat of getting Mitski to write an original song for it, if you didn’t love the sound of it already.

On the surface, Kogonada has made a movie about what our futures may look like, but through a lens of positive possibilities rather than morbid fate. What if the androids that may slip into our lives could enrich it -- and even better, live fulfilling lives of their own? And what does that say about the way we treat outsiders today. In After Yang, we get the opportunity to look inside someone’s mind, and look at the world through their eyes. They may be the eyes of an android, but it exposes the minutiae of what makes being human so amazing.

After Yang premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and will be released by A24 in the US later this year.

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Cannes Film Festival