As the long-awaited film is finally released in the UK, Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada talks about the complex personal experiences that inspired it
Just because Yang is Asian, it doesn’t mean he’s considered human. Played by Justin H. Min with wide-eyed curiosity, Yang is a robot who possesses Chinese physical features and the ability to recite “Chinese fun facts”. Manufactured by a company called Second Siblings, Yang was purchased by a couple, Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), to remind their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), of her heritage. But Yang has his own identity crisis. When Jake asks Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), a clone, if Yang ever wanted to be human, she shakes her head. “That’s such a human thing to ask,” she retorts. “But he did question if he was Chinese.”
So goes the world of After Yang, a thoughtful, immaculately designed sci-fi from the Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada. With a pseudonym referencing Yasujirō Ozu’s co-writer Kogo Nada, Kogonada earned acclaim in 2017 with Columbus, a searing, Ozu-esque drama in which two strangers bond over the healing power of architecture. For instance, in Columbus, Indiana, the Quinco Mental Health Centre was designed by James Polshek to resemble a “bridge to mental health”. Yang, then, seems to be a futuristic extension of Polshek’s philosophy that surrounding objects impact our health. After all, Yang’s emotional effect on Mika stems from the architecture of his manufactured, sculpted face.
“You’re the first person to ever make that connection,” Kogonada responds, sitting in London after flying over from LA for the Edinburgh Film Festival. “I’m always hesitant to articulate the things you’re trying to explore. But yes. In their world, AI has lost its distinction. The father sees Yang as an appliance, and doesn’t recognise the beauty or meaningfulness of this mechanism. Yang’s a piece of architecture within this family space. And for the people of Columbus, the architecture has also become invisible. It’s all utilitarian to them.”
Kogonada adapted the script from a short story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang”, by an American author, Alexander Weinstein. I initially assumed Weinstein related most to Yang, a sci-fi construct who resembles the existential dilemma of many Asian children who grow up in western countries: they’re treated differently due to the colour of their skin. As Yang is Chinese, he’s expected to be knowledgeable about Chinese tea, even though he’s never visited the country. However, Weinstein is actually white, and the more overt parallel is with Jake, a tea shop owner who specialises in Eastern flavours. Jake, then, is a sly punchline: for a westerner to believe they’re an expert in Asian culture, they need the confidence of a white man.
“What I felt I could add to this story was my Asian-ness,” Kogonada says. “Weinstein wrote it, but I could get inside Yang’s skin.” Yang’s Asian-ness was thus, initially, a white person’s idea of Asian-ness. “He’s presented as Asian, he looks Asian, his role is to be Asian. There’s an expectation of Asian-ness. That felt really relatable to me.
“People who are in the diaspora, who are Asian, outside of their homeland, we exist in a world where people have assumptions. There’s a cultural orientalism we have to navigate. And even though we’re human, we have to contend with this construct of Asian-ness, and even my own sense of what it means to be Asian – and if I’m Asian enough – outside of the homeland. Yang has the same experience.”
While there’s an undeniable warmth to After Yang, it’s set in a sparse society that’s survived an environmental disaster, there are signs of racism (a minor character has anti-Chinese newspaper clippings pinned to the wall), and there’s a flipside to recognising humanity in clones and robots: it means humans aren’t so special. We also know that if Paul Verhoeven were in the director’s chair, a different kind of movie would materialise. Kogonada agrees, but notes, “There’s this little exchange where Jakes asks if this particular kind of robot can have relationships, and (an AI specialist) responds, ‘Like to use them?’ So you do get this idea that AI exists for all kinds of possibilities.”
Ultimately, After Yang is Kogonada’s version of a sci-fi, meaning that the buildings, technology, and aesthetic choices of the future share the same visual DNA as Columbus and the Apple series Pachinko, on which Kogonada directed half the first season. Moreover, at the core of all these projects is the inherent humanity of characters who are given the time and space by Kogonada’s mise-en-scène and editing choices to express themselves. Many of them happen to be Asian.
“The majority of Asians that I talk to tend to be existential, very thoughtful, and philosophical,” Kogonada says. “But the representation of Asians in films (when I was growing up) was mostly of quirky, ostracised people. They knew martial arts, were sexually deviant, or were a comedy act. That human representation of people struggling to figure out how to be in the world – there was a real lack of that when I was consuming Western cinema. But I found it in Asian cinema: Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang, and people who treat Asians as human.”
Kogonada has two scripts he’s ready to shoot, possibly both in 2023, and both, I tell him, will surely be full of humanity. But then I acknowledge that it’s an odd cliché of journalism to praise films for their humanity, or slam them for being too robotic. As Ada argues, only humans wonder if clones and robots want to be humans. “I mean, it’s fucking hard to be human,” Kogonada says. “It’s really hard. Sometimes the days are good, sometimes it’s a struggle. We imagine everyone longs to be human. Maybe that’s about free will. It’s great to be human. But it’s hard.
“It’s all about longing – a longing to be... not necessarily human, but wanting to exist in the world, and trying to understand what that means. If we call that humanity, I’m fine with it. Because the one thing about humans is that we can articulate the struggle of being.”
After Yang is out in cinemas and on Sky Cinema now