Chicago - Editor's note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 28, 2022. It has been expanded and republished on the eve of the film's release. "After Yang" arrives in select theaters and begins streaming on Showtime Mar. 4.
"Tone poem" and "memory play" are two of the most overused terms when it comes to indie arthouse films, yet it’s hard to think of better descriptors for writer/director Kogonada’s elegiac sci-fi family drama "After Yang." After an exuberant burst of an opening credits dance sequence, the movie quickly becomes a wistful meditation on what it means to be human, what it means to be an android and what it means to be a family.
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Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Justin H. Min in "After Yang"
In contrast to something like "Westworld," which imagines a deeply cynical future between man and machine, "After Yang" takes a more hopeful view. "Cultural technosapien" Yang (Justin H. Min) isn’t human and doesn’t necessarily want to be. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his adoptive family — and that they don’t love him back.
In fact, it’s not until Yang goes on the fritz that dad Jake (Colin Farrell), mom Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and little sister Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) begin to realize just how integral he truly was to their lives. Jake’s quest to have Yang fixed soon becomes both an external and internal journey towards deeper understanding of his technospaien son and how he viewed the world.
Kogonada finds elegantly simple ways to flesh out his near-future world. There are echoes of "Ex Machina" and "Her" in the film’s cozily sleek aesthetics; self-driving cars come equipped with little fern gardens, and films can be watched on the inside of sunglasses.
Justin H. Min and Haley Lu RIchardson in "After Yang"
Like those other lo-fi sci-fi movies, "After Yang" also has no shortage of ambitious metaphorical ideas at its center. Yang’s purpose is to teach Jake and Kyra’s adoptive daughter about her Chinese heritage, but what does he really know about being Asian, he wonders, when his connection to Chinese culture is learned more than lived? "After Yang" is the sort of meditative science fiction tale that feels both broadly humanistic and deeply personal for its South Korean-born American director.
With an evocative, slightly jarring editing style and almost monotone serenity, there’s a touch of detachment here that could leave some cold by the time the credits roll. Yet give it a day or two and you might find that "After Yang" sticks with you like an android dreaming of electric sheep.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
Stream some ambitious sci-fi (for free!) on Tubi
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009): One of the very best contemporary space operas came into being as an oddball TV reboot (you can stream the original series for free, too). Three Emmys, many Cylons and one devoted fandom later, it’s regarded as a soon-to-be classic, anchored by great performances from Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Grace Park, Katee Sackhoff, James Callis and the incredible Tricia Helfer, among others. So say we all. Rated TV-14. 74 episodes.
The Fountain (2006): Auterist filmmaker Darren Aronofsky directs Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in this densely-packed, emotionally rich film, which chronicles "a man's thousand-year struggle to save the woman he loves as he embarks on three quests across three lives." Rated PG-13. 96 minutes. Dir: Darren Aronofsky. Also featuring Ellen Burstyn, Stephen McHattie, Cliff Curtis.
Hardcore Henry (2016): "Hardcore Henry" isn’t based on a video game, but it replicates the gaming experience more directly than any proper adaptation of the past two decades. Filmed entirely in "first person shooter" mode (i.e. from the perspective of the protagonist), this sci-fi shoot-‘em-up delivers a creative riff on action filmmaking with a gimmick it’s hard to believe someone hadn’t tried before. Rated R. 96 minutes. Dir: Ilya Naishuller. Featuring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Andrei Dementiev, Darya Charusha.
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