After Yang [Sundance Film Festival Review]

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After Yang is an alluring sci-fi movie that takes viewers through the investigation of a personal mystery. The opening credits sequence featuring all the characters dancing to techno music suggests it will be a glossy ride of some sort. As things progress, though, it becomes clear that the story has much, much more on its mind than just trying to be cool. We follow the main character as he attempts to unravel the surprising secrets of a “family” member, leading to the revelation of themes related to loss and memory.

Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) are a married couple with an adopted daughter. Mika (Malea Emma Tjandawidjaja) is Chinese. To help her feel more connected to her heritage, they purchased a “techno-sapian” named Yang (Justin H. Min) to be her brother. Yang abruptly ceases to function one day, leaving Mika in mourning. Jake attempts to get him fixed, only to learn that the robot has a data processor inside his head that is filled with three-second-long recordings he's taken over the years. Many of them feature an unknown woman (Haley Lu Richardson). Jake goes on a quest to discover who she is and why Yang has stored these images of her.

I'm leaving a few key details out, and I'm not going to get specific on what happens next. The important thing to know is that After Yang deals with the question, What if we had access to our loved one's memories after they die? At one level, digging through Yang's database provides a certain level of comfort for Jake. On another, it reveals information about his “son” that he never knew, information he could not have conceived of. Learning those secrets directly impacts how he views himself, as well as his role as husband and father.

The writer/director known as Kogonada, adapting a short story by Alexander Weinstein, unfolds the story in subtle style. This is the kind of film that you have to devote total attention to, lest you fail to pick up on any of its key points. A more overt approach would have ruined the impact, though. Coming at the material with delicacy encourages us to think about what we're seeing more fully. You spend the running time contemplating the myriad little nuances in the performances and the plot. The finale comes together in such a gentle way that I had to watch the last ten minutes a second time to ensure I could absorb it all.

Colin Farrell takes a low-key approach to his performance, using minimalism to imply how haunted Jake is by the entire situation. We can feel his sense of unease, but also how personally impacted he is by the implications of what he finds. Haley Lu Richardson is also a stand-out among the strong cast. The Five Feet Apart actress doesn't have a lot of scenes, yet she invests her character with just the right enigmatic qualities.

After Yang is, I suspect, a film that plays even better on second or third viewing. Once you know where the story is headed, you can savor the various shades of meaning along the way. And a second viewing is certainly something many viewers will want. This beautiful, moving story gives you, as the saying goes, all the feels.

out of four

After Yang is rated PG for some thematic elements and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.