Do we need another movie about robots? Before the new film After Yang came along, I’d argue: no. Yet the sci-fi drama, opening in Canadian theatres March 11, asks a familiar question – what is the difference between organic and artificial life? – in a startlingly unfamiliar fashion.
The second feature from mononymous director Kogonada (whose alias combines the first and last names of Japanese screenwriter Kogo Noda), After Yang follows a couple (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) who go to great lengths to repair Yang, their “techno-sapien” android who serves as the playmate and cultural educator for their adopted Chinese daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story Saying Goodbye To Yang, the film takes place in the near-future – a time in which self-driving cars and human cloning is the norm, but no one is, say, fending off a human-android robopocalypse.
Like his acclaimed 2017 directorial debut Columbus, Kogonada’s new movie is an intimate film about the spaces we inhabit, and the lives we build for ourselves to keep some inside and others out. It also gives Farrell, one of the most idiosyncratic leading men working today, a chance to further contort his audience’s expectations (at the same time that After Yang is playing theatres, moviegoers can also see Farrell be magnificently hammy as crime-lord villain the Penguin in Matt Reeves’ The Batman).
Ahead of After Yang’s release, The Globe and Mail spoke with Kogonada and Farrell about the future of families.
One of the things that struck me about the film is this strong level of kindness present in Yang’s family contrasted with a world that seems to have moved beyond kindness.
Kogonada: That’s so interesting because I wanted to think about the dynamic of the family versus the outside world. Colin’s character goes through all these different people trying to fix Yang, none of whom are helpful, so this family feels lost and fragmented in their world. There is a softness in that.
Farrell: It felt very much like the world that we live in today but on a more gentle palette. It’s a film about contending with how to live a meaningful life, whether it’s the daughters who are clones or having a techno-sapien to help your daughter connect to her cultural heritage. The world today is scary, so here is this family nucleus that is represented in a much more gentle way.
How much a conversation was there between you two as to what the world outside this family unit looked liked? As a viewer, I only saw this future world in the margins, like the window of a passing car or a brief exterior shot.
Farrell: I remember Kogonada sharing, with a specificity, that we were inhabiting a world brought to the brink. We’re not close enough to that brink now – there’s still space for fundamental disagreement, like on global warming for instance – but in the film it’s a world that got very, very close to the end and humanity had to come together as a global community to reassess its relationship with nature and revert to a more organic way of existing. That’s why you see the home surrounded by plants, gardens.
Kogonada: To go back to your first question, it’s that there is something loving about this family in their relationship to the world of this future. The relationship between Colin and Jodie’s characters, you can sense there are problems in that marriage, but they haven’t given up. The relationship, the film, is a about that fine line between cynicism and criticism. Criticism is necessary – we need to ask questions, and there’s something hopeful about that as a pursuit. But cynicism is criticism without any hope. I don’t think this family has that, and the tension driving them is to still care, to still try. There’s something lovely about that.
Alexander’s short story is set in Detroit. Your first film, Columbus, had a very specific locale, as well. Why did you make After Yang more anonymous, taking place in an unnamed setting?
Kogonada: Part of it sadly was budget concerns. I went to Detroit, there is great architecture there, but early on I felt this film was going to be largely interior. We’re never going to see the outside world except through a reflection. I scouted Detroit, but there were no tax credits and lots of other issues. With that off the table, I became excited about a future that could be anywhere. A city that just simply survived.
This interview has been condensed and edited
After Yang opens March 11 in select Canadian theatres
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