By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“After Yang,” the second feature film written and directed by South Korea’s Kogonada, played the Northwest Film Forum as a presentation of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival on March 6, and should be available for home streaming soon. It’s a quiet, gentle, and loving film, much better at proposing questions than proffering answers. But it proposes its questions by sowing them in the viewer’s psyche, letting them blossom in beauty and mystery. It’s a film to walk out of the theater talking about, then go home and tell the people close to you about.
I forgot for a moment, of course, we live in the 21st century. You could watch and share and ponder over your personal device these days. Kogonada’s scenario, adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, takes place in the mildly-distant future, incorporating extrapolations of things already lived with by most folk.
Korean American actor Justin H. Min plays Yang himself, a Chinese android bought as a sibling for a little Chinese girl, Mika (played by Chinese Indonesian American actress Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Mika’s adoptive parents, Jake (Irish actor Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jamaican British actress Jodie Turner-Smith), couldn’t adopt a second child. They want a big brother for Mika, and someone to remind Mika of her Chinese roots.
Yang’s very much like a member of the family, and most of the time, the others forget he isn’t human. This might seem like a stretch, but keep in mind that during the Furby craze circa 1998, Furby owners grew despondent if their Furby broke or wore out. Furbys were cute, cuddly, and fuzzy, but their vocabularies topped out at a few dozen words. They could not learn your name. They could not adapt to any one person specifically.
But as Dr. Mary Aiken and other cyber psychologists point out, that was enough for most children and even most adults. They knew Furbys were only toys, but they inspired real love.
Yang, so much more like a real person, easily inspires real love. Until one day, he breaks down, becoming inert. Jake and Kyra could get over this. But Mika can’t. She wants her Yang back and she can’t wait.
Part of the film’s gentle comedy is how, even in the future, family difficulties look familiar, with familiar consequences. Make a major purchase on something that isn’t exactly new, and you run the risk of having little or no recourse if it breaks down. You’re saving money in the short term, but you’re gambling. If you lose your gamble, you could be looking at high fees just to have a problem looked at. And that endless conundrum of Western life, at least: Never enough money to explore all the options, especially the preferable options.
Mika doesn’t care about any of this though. She knows her brother is a little different, but she wants him repaired, not replaced. Her parents send her mixed messages on this. That’s something else parents do in the present, as well. They both love their daughter, but they can’t agree on how to calm her.
Jake’s journey through what’s possible and not possible, with Yang, takes him through what’s possible and not possible in life, and love, and family. He’ll discover answers that lead him to more questions. He’ll discover Yang’s journeys through things Yang was never designed to do, things Yang’s theoretically incapable of doing.
But the film refuses to resolve, as most films do. Some of the crucial questions remain. Can we love the inanimate? The Furby fans mentioned earlier answer the question: yes. Dr. Aiken, and others, wonder and doubt at our increasing reliance on electronic, mechanical companions. What might be the long-term implications of telling children to place their love in something that doesn’t love?
But “After Yang” proposes, amongst its other queries, one possible counter to the above. What if the electronic, the mechanical, learns to love back?
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.