Since long before Philip K. Dick wondered if androids dream of electric sheep, science fiction writers have used artificial life as a means to ponder what it means to be human. But the android in After Yang doesn’t care about that. As a “cultural techno” purchased by an American couple, a white father (Colin Farrell) and Black mother (Jodie Turner-Smith), his job is to impart a sense of Asian identity to their adopted Chinese daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), a purpose for which his memory banks have been filled with “fun facts” about ancient traditions of horticulture and tea-drinking. But Yang (Justin H. Min) finds himself wondering, right up to the edges of what his programming will allow, whether possessing that knowledge is the same as being a part of the culture it describes. He never questioned whether he was human, another character says of Yang, but “he did question if he was Chinese.”
After Yang’s writer-director is surrounded by plenty of questions himself. A critic and video essayist who turned narrative filmmaker with 2017’s lyrical Columbus, he identifies himself only as Kogonada, a pseudonym adapted from the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s frequent screenwriting partner, Kogo Noda. He was born in Seoul and raised in the Midwest, but he has generally declined to provide details beyond that, explaining that he’s “never identified much with my American name.” But he did find traces of himself in Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” which loosely provided the basis for the movie’s script. The story’s tone is vastly different from the movie’s, brash and knowing where the film is restrained and mysterious. (In the story, when Yang abruptly shuts down and sends the family into a panic as they try to get him repaired, he drops face-first into a bowl of cereal; in the movie, the camera cuts away as if it can’t bear to look.) But as a first-generation immigrant, he connected deeply with Yang’s placelessness. “This recognition that he’s a construct of Asian-ness, that he doesn’t have any real memories, I can relate to that,” Kogonada said via Zoom, backed by shelves full of Criterion Collection Blu-rays and a copy of Dana Stevens’ Camera Man. “I think anyone from the Asian diaspora, or any diaspora, we float between worlds and the sense of belonging. I know that in my flesh, my skin, I’m representing Asian-ness, but I don’t have those kinds of memories that people who are born and grew up in Asia do that might substantiate that feeling of being Asian. There is something that was surprising about how much I could identify with this sort of artificial being.”
Justin Min, who plays Yang, is a second-generation Korean-American known for his role on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy. “A lot of the things that resonated with me were things related to Asian identity,” he explains. “These are things that I grapple with on a personal level on a day-to-day basis. I struggle with what it means to be Asian American. What parts of me are Asian? What parts of me are American? Because I look Asian. I enjoy Asian foods. I can speak Korean. Or, am I not really Asian because I’m not really tethered to a real experience of Asia and the history there?” That sense of dislocation was complicated and compounded by the fact that Kogonada chose to keep Yang’s ethnic identity constant from the story, despite the fact that both he and Min are of Korean descent. “I brought that up,” Min recalls, “and I was like, ‘This robot is Chinese and I’m ethnically Korean. How do we feel about this?’ With the rise of K-pop and Korean cinema and TV shows, we thought, OK, if there was a group of people creating this robot, number one, they wouldn’t even be able to distinguish Chinese features from Korean features, because a lot of non-Asian people can’t. And if this Korean wave was still happening, in many ways that would be the more trendy option.”
As deep and rich as the best science fiction, After Yang touches on so many themes it’s difficult to keep track of them all. (The first thing I did when I finished the movie, after drying my eyes, was jot down a long list of the things it’s about.) One of the most profound is the way its exploration of cultural identity is woven into its depiction of adoption. In one scene, Yang takes Mika, the daughter, to an orchard and shows her a tree with a grafted-on branch—a practice he dates back to ancient China. (Fun fact!) There’s more of one than another, he explains, but the source of the tree and its new branch are of equal importance, and what defines them both is the place where they are joined, a juncture that can never be broken, even though its seams will never fully disappear.
Kogonada himself has two sons, both adopted from Korea, and Yang’s words speak directly to his own experience. “I had this idea, honestly, that the connection with them, though I could imagine it would be strong, would not be as strong as, say, a biological connection,” he says. “But when we adopted our sons, there was something so immediate in my being, feeling entangled in a way. It felt like grafting was the only metaphor I could come up with. It’s genuine. It’s physical. What does family even mean? It’s not just that you are a nationality, it’s not just about your ethnicity. There are some deeper forms of connection that make up all families.”
That feeling of dislocation can be amplified or complicated by cultural and familiar circumstances, but Kogonada also sees it as endemic to the modern condition. Colin Farrell’s character, Jake, should be right at home in the movie’s future America, even though the movie is set after the world has been reshaped by an ecological crisis. (Kogonada admits this idea has largely fallen out of the completed film, but it’s present in subtle details, like the way the family’s house is built with gutters that recycle rainwater, and the driverless car that ferries them around seems to have plants growing inside it.) But he’s still searching for meaning, whether it’s through building the perfect family or his job selling old-fashioned tea leaves in a world where most people prefer synthetic flavor crystals. “A cup of tea can contain a world,” he says, inspired by an ancient (2007) documentary that allows Ferrell to show off his Werner Herzog impression. “You can taste a place, a time.” He’s been scrolling through Yang’s memory banks, not only discovering what he and his family look like through Yang’s synthetic eyes, but that a being he only conceived of in relation to the tasks it was assigned had a life—or whatever you choose to call it—of its own. In the movie’s most heart-exploding segment, Jake discovers that some of Yang’s most important memories don’t have anything to do with him at all.
“So much of this film is about Jake’s initial sense of disconnection and lost-ness,” Kogonada says. “I think it’s the condition of modern people that we feel alienated and fragmented and longing for this kind of connection. I struggle with that, as someone who at times feels like I don’t belong anywhere. We’re all longing for real attachment.” But that longing can also lead to the perception of attachments that don’t really exist, or that only go one way. The humans in After Yang assume that Yang longs to be like them, because they can’t conceive any other way of being. Yang, however, just wants to understand what he already is. “The AI story I think about the most is Pinocchio, because we always parse it as if they want to be human,” Kogonada says, stroking the cat that sits in his lap for our entire half-hour conversation. “‘I bet this cat wants to be human.’ He seems pretty happy being a cat. If anything, as a human, I wish I had the life of a cat.”
What defines the characters in After Yang isn’t their humanity, or whether they’re born, manufactured, or cloned, but their experiences and, more importantly, the memories of them. Kogonada recalls caring for his father-in-law during the last years of his life as dementia progressively took hold of his memory. “Sometimes when you’re around older people, they seem like children, but if we would care enough to open them up, we would see a whole history of loss and love and pursuits and disappointments.” One of the saddest truths the movie comes to face is that we can never know anyone, no matter how much we may love them, that well. We’re always coming in late, asking what we missed, spending whole lifetimes in pursuit of an understanding we’ll never fully achieve. “We all long to be known that way,” Kogonada says. “But I think it’s important to realize you or anyone you feel you know, they too are mysteries. We are all carrying these worlds inside of us. And it’s just a matter of finding that interesting enough to look.”