To Be Human

One of the things movies do is show us different ways of being human. Though people may disagree about what makes a good way of being human, still, humans make movies and other art, so that art must connect in some way to a particular human experience. If the artist has only superficially examined (or understood) an experience, the art itself is going to ring false. If the artist uses human experience in a way that is unrecognizable to others who have had the experience, the art rings false. 

As humans, we intuitively perceive a depiction of human experience as true or false, but it is harder to identify what exactly makes us human; in other words, what separates humans as humans from other creatures. After Yang (2021; streaming on Showtime) explores those dividing lines, and so puts its ear to the thrumming mystery of humanity itself.

There are any number of movies which explicitly explore human nature, from Blade Runner (are humans humane?) to zombie movies (am I justified in killing this used-to-be human?) to war movies (how should I act when other people are trying to kill me?). Maybe, in the end, every movie explores human nature to some extent. But After Yang seems unique to me. Its uniqueness is certainly not in its use of android-type characters, or machines that appear human. It is not in its futuristic setting. It is not in its imagining the possible uses of technology. There is, however, a slow beauty (with shades of Terrence Malick) that emphasizes and heightens the introspection of Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) especially.

In terms of visuals, that is the aspect of writer/director Kogonada’s cinema that draws me in. There are hints of it in his first feature film, Columbus (which is toward the top of the list of my favorite films ever). There, the movie revolves around architecture in Columbus, Indiana, and Casey’s (Haley Lu Richardson, who appears as Ada in After Yang) love of the architecture of that particular place. But architecture is not the subject of Columbus, so much as the scaffolding behind which the story itself is built. In After Yang, the scaffolding is not quite as focused around a single item, but tea (grounded in the past) and technology (looking to the future) provide basic touch points. 

There is a visual calm, even as Kogonada’s films deal with the heaviness of life in moments of loss, grief, self-evaluation, family, and memory. The moment of Yang’s (Justin H. Min) malfunction sets off a re-evaluation for both Jake and Kyra, related to their adopted daughter, Mika (the talented-beyond-her-years Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Yang is a “Techno sapien,” who was purchased at a discount because he was not brand new, but “certified,” as Jake reminds at least three people. But because Yang was “used,” it allows the narrative to open up around past lives that Yang lived with other families. We discover that Yang, unlike others of his kind, not only has the capacity for self-reflection (literally, as we see him in more than one mirror), but also that he is able to form relationships outside of the family who has purchased him.  

Yang, primarily because Jake and Kyra both discover his “memories” in the after of the title, provokes questions about both human nature and family. The question of family is tied not only to the meaning of adoption (which Yang explains to Mika with a great illustration as he shows her branches of one tree grafted into a tree of a different kind), but also to culture. Yang asks Ada what it can mean for him to be Chinese, if he didn’t ever live in China and wasn’t born to Chinese parents. And if Mika can be adopted and “grafted in” to a family different from her family of origin, there is an implied question about whether creations like Yang may also, truly, become part of a family.

A different filmmaker might be tempted to follow any of the numerous darker paths into the more terrifying side of technological possibility at which Kogonada hints (corporate spyware, cloning, the possibility of evil artificial intelligence, the erasure of humanity, etc.). Kogonada, however, builds an organic world that focuses on human love and possibility. It is organic both in its connection to our world, as an entirely believable futuristic extension of current technology, as well as in the organic connections within After Yang. There is nothing pedantic. Neither is there anything superfluous. The details serve the setting as color for the story, as they do in Columbus. More than usual, I feel that I haven’t really begun to do justice to this movie, so I’ll let this just serve as my Kogonada appreciation post and an encouragement to seek out both of his movies, as well as his video essays on various filmmakers.

On the newest episode of Saints and Cinema, Jay and I talk with Rev. Dr. Scott Stiegemeyer about many of the aspects of After Yang.