Discover more from Movie Night
Reflections on Reflections
A24 has been on a tear over the past few years. Minari (2021), The Green Knight (2021, my favorite film of 2021!), The Souvenir Part II (2021), Red Rocket (2021), Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2022), and recently Aftersun (2022) round out several years of hits. Among the greatness is After Yang (2021), directed by Kogonada. It is a moving portrait of a family in quiet crisis. When Yang (Justin H. Min), a technosapien, who was adopted as an older brother and companion for Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), breaks down, Jake (Colin Farrell) sets about finding a way to repair him. Despite the differences, we learn that life in the future is still a lonely place that pulls us apart. Entropy seems to be the only constant.
The opening scene illustrates a crucial tenet of fiction: humans generally remain the same regardless of reality. Jake runs a specialty tea shop, and a customer asks for standard tea crystals. Jake politely informs the woman that he doesn’t carry tea crystals, but if she describes the flavor, he’d be happy to make her a blend from his organic ingredients. “How can you be a tea shop and not carry tea crystals?” Tea, a seemingly timeless beverage, has been modernized, despite Jake’s best efforts to honor traditional methods. This early scene may be particularly heartbreaking for any small business entrepreneurs watching. Jake’s beautifully laid out, thoughtful business is just a brief inconvenience for a passerby. We recognize what’s happening despite the foreign context in which it occurs.
I could write a thousand words about why you should watch this movie. Or I could link you to the title sequence. Just watch it. Convinced? Ok, my work here is done.
The closest comparison in recent memory for After Yang is Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, which, holy hell, is already nine years old. Its similarity is striking because the future it envisions is lovely on the surface; minimal, green, smooth, electronic, and fashion-forward. On the surface, it seems as if the steady march of time has led us to a more enlightened future. Under the surface, humanity continues to bubble and toil. Kogonada takes us into this world and the many little ways we’ve struggled to make ground as a species. One of my favorite subtleties is when Jake attempts to return to the shop where he purchased Yang. It’s changed ownership in the short time since he’s been there. The new owner is selling plants and knows nothing of the previous tenants. Kogonada suggests that despite the self-driving cars, AI-powered companions, and immersive video calls over dinner, small businesses (like Jake’s tea shop) are still in flux.
After Yang is a film about love, loss, and grief, how a family grieves together. Like carrying a torch through the dark after a rain. You must push yourself while being available to your loved ones should they stumble in the mud. While Colin Farrell’s performance is one of his finest, it wouldn’t be anything without the strength of the actors around him. Jodie Turner-Smith, as Kyra, is a rock for the family. She stoically earns money for the family and emotionally supports them with a believability that anyone who’s ever had to lean on a loved one will recognize. Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja portrays innocence and devotion flawlessly. Lastly, Justin H. Min, as Yang, ties everything together with grace.
On a deeper level, it’s a film about subjectiveness, even, or especially, for a technosapien. Time obscures the truth. Passions obscure reality. Emotions obscure memory. Memory obscures time. For me, watching the movie felt like standing on the porch of my childhood home in a fugue state, listening to wind chimes gently bump in the breeze. The memory kept coming back to me.
The amount of detail Kogonada squeezes into 96 minutes of film is astounding. The list goes on: cultural heritage, corporate espionage, family, adoption, and techno futurism. This is not to say that these subjects all receive detailed treatises within, but that they’re gently alluded to in a manner that feels entirely organic within the film. I’m reminded of a tweet that Kogonada made after seeing Everything Everywhere All at Once. He said: “Less is not always more. Sometimes more is more.” It’s fitting from a masterful director of “less as more.” I found myself wishing at times that the film would slow down. Take as much time as possible. Linger for a few more moments on a character as a tear rolls down their face. So that I could process what I was feeling and reconcile it with the characters.
Midway through the film, in a flashback, Yang and Jake are discussing tea. Jake tells Yang why he got into tea in the first place: to capture the feeling he discovered while watching a movie. A movie about all of the factors that go into making tea. How a perfect cup of tea can take one to the forest from which it was harvested. Yang expresses his desire to appreciate tea for more than the facts that he knows about tea. How he wishes he had a “real” memory of tea. For Jake, Kyra, and Mika, Yang is transitioning into a memory. It’s up to them, individually and as a family, to understand the reality of the memory. Just as it’s up to us to form relationships with our own.
Written and Directed by Kogonada
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
I’ve embarked upon a deep dive into transcendentalism in film, on which Paul Schrader seems to be the expert, so I was excited to see some of the techniques pop up while watching After Yang. Further research shows that Kogonada is indeed a student of French director Robert Bresson, one of the pioneers of this sub-genre of slow cinema. Stay tuned next year for more on transcendental cinema. If you want to go deep sooner, then, by all means, grab Paul Schrader’s updated text on the subject. It’s a fascinating view of a sub-genre of film-making that I’ve found rewarding in the same way one might find meditation rewarding. If you can sit through a seven-hour film without looking at your phone, you have discovered inner calm!
Last thing this week: the score to After Yang is wonderful focus music in its own right and worth checking out. Composed by Aska Matsumiya, an LA-based Japanese composer and producer.
Thanks for reading Movie Night. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.