When we think of how cinema portrays the future, certain vivid images come to mind. Obsidian pyramids, intrusive ads and hovercars amidst Blade Runner’s twinkling, smog-filled cityscape; a sea of human skulls crushed under the tire treads of a Skynet death machine; rows of identical essence-stealing pods that greet Neo as he awakens from the dream he called a life. If mainstream science fiction is to be believed, the future is a world of horrors, a place where the ills of the present have multiplied manifold, leaving some assortment of murder-robots, all-encompassing corporations or Orwellian bureaucracies with a total victory. While not all sci-fi rendered in celluloid is this bleak, dystopia is undoubtedly one of its most common flavors. And for a good reason, as it provides fuel for conflict, visually imaginative backdrops and abundant social commentary.
However, there is another way, a path that Kogonada, the video-essayist turned filmmaker, illuminates with sublime gentleness in After Yang. Contrasted with the intentionally alienating openings of the previously mentioned greats, it begins with a scene we’re all familiar with: The family photo. A group of three positions themselves to get the perfect shot against soothing greens, the composition initially off-balance until the final member of the bunch, Yang (Justin H. Min), comes out from behind the camera to join them. As the picture snaps, an elegiac piano piece hints this may be one of the last times they’re all together. It’s a simple sequence, but one that acts as a statement of purpose, showing that despite the many futuristic sights we’ll witness, this story is first and foremost interested in providing grounded depictions of these people’s lives.
One day, something happens to Yang, and after behaving strangely, we see the young man draped over Jake’s (Colin Farrell) shoulder. Jake and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) have a jarring conversation about warranties and getting Yang “repaired,” implying he is actually an artificially created person. Unlike many stories that feature an audience insert character to outline precisely what’s going on, we’re instead whisked into the ongoing chore of getting Yang serviced. Jake bounces between the defunct secondhand store where he purchased the android and the far-flung equivalent of an AutoZone, receiving bad news as he fumbles through a painful series of trips gone awry. It’s a brutal procession that hits close to home for anyone who has embarked on an increasingly futile journey to have a car, or some other complex machine, serviced, highlighting the irritating and sometimes circuitous tasks of adulthood in a borderline humorous way (“He was certified refurbished,” Jake recounts defeatedly, for the third time). But while there is an initial dash of absurdity to this situation, melancholy sets in as it becomes clear that Yang may not be able to be fixed.
His sudden absence from the family leaves a gaping hole. For one, Kyra and Jake brought Yang in to help raise their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), a girl of Chinese descent. His model was designed to help kids grow up feeling close to their heritage, and while Mika and others chide him for his constant supply of factoids about her background, it’s clear that he is a good big brother who succeeds at making her feel at home. The details of this situation, that an artificially created person is being deployed to help alleviate identity-based anxieties, make for the kind of thought-provoking specifics that can only be fully explored in this type of low-key sci-fi. There is a painful sincerity to this depiction of cultural alienation, capturing how Mika sometimes feels estranged because she’s not blood-related to her parents. In one particularly poignant flashback, Yang uses an analogy about horticultural grafting to explain how she is undeniably part of the family, helping soothe her worries. But once he’s gone, these old apprehensions rush to the foreground. At the same time, Mika’s parents fall into old arguments stemming from pressures with their jobs and concerns they’re not making enough time for her, as Jake’s prolonged handling of Yang’s repairs exacerbates these tensions.
However, even if he’s no longer physically present, the android has one last gift to give his family: His memories. In one of the film’s few excesses, Jake puts on a pair of virtual reality glasses and is thrust into a galaxy of shimmering golden orbs, each representing a recollection. These remembrances are fragmentary: The soft purples and dreamy vocals of a local concert; Kyra rocking a baby in her arms; sunlight cutting a silhouette of swaying leaves as we watch Mika grow up—Yang a constant reassuring presence. This montage, accompanied by the same bittersweet piano track from the introduction, conveys the tactile details that linger in memory, the immeasurably small things that stay with us. It embodies the gentleness and quiet introspection that defines the movie, each shot humming with humanity. With lesser execution, it would be hopelessly saccharine, but the meticulous framing imbues each image with impact.
And while these moments are moving in a vacuum, we also see how reliving them affects this family, helping them work through grief. They grapple with loss, the captured footage helping them recall conversations with Yang, these talks gaining increased significance with hindsight. He may be gone now, but they come to understand the full weight of their discussions about passions, half-remembered documentaries and the purpose of butterfly collecting. Even those closest to us have dimensions we aren’t keen to, each of us holding myriad complexities. By viewing these sequences, they also come to understand that Yang had entire lives they were unaware of, forcing them to more fully consider his (artificial) personhood. While the film’s one misstep is that it doesn’t more explicitly grapple with the ethics of how androids are deployed in this world, Yang is so thoughtfully rendered that it at least partially makes up for this.
Despite the self-driving cars, advanced robotics of “technosapiens” and background suggestions of a destructive war between world powers, After Yang’s narrative remains restrained, these elements only used to explore loss and familial tensions. Its aesthetic framing mirrors this immediacy. There are no wide establishing shots of an advanced metropolis, only interior views of cars, homes and workplaces, emphasizing the domestic focus.
I enjoy bombastic renditions of the future as much as anybody, tales that revel in mass-scale struggle, imaginative devices and nefarious social constructs. But this more grounded approach lets After Yang delve into the contours of these people’s lives, demonstrating Mika’s cultural anxieties, Kyra’s fraught relationship with her flailing husband and Jake’s bottled grief over the loss of Yang. The appeal of low-key sci-fi is that through shrinking the scope of conflict, relatively commonplace concerns gain increased impact, emulating the worries we deal with in the here and now. On top of being beautiful in their own right, Yang’s recordings succinctly demonstrate why this film is a work needed to be speculative fiction: These echoes of the past offer reflections on memory and grief while also acting as a catalyst to help this family heal. By combining the genre’s ability to realize far-flung technology with Kogonoda’s precise imagery, After Yang proves that there is fertile ground for moving, mundane science fiction.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.