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Embodiments of Time: Kogonada on After Yang

Teeming with a nourishing serenity, the future envisioned in director Kogonada’s sophomore cinematic balm “After Yang” feels ripe for introspection. Reshaped for the screen from the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein, the soul-soothing, yet intellectually provocative sci-fi drama poses queries on the parameters that define our cultural identification, our definition of family, the beneficial unreliability of memory, and the very blemishes of character that compose the human condition.

Tea savant Jake (Colin Farrell) and his firm-hand wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) enlisted Yang (Justin H. Min) a techno-human programmed to teach their young daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) about her Chinese ancestry. But this techno-human, as his robotic kind is referred to in a reality where organic clones also exist, has surpassed his practical function and entrenched himself as a member of their clan.

In the aftermath of a likely irreparable malfunction in Yang’s system, an equivalent to our physical death, Jake goes after answers that will confront him with the android’s life beyond what he imagined, further complicating his feelings towards him and his seemingly artificial humanity. Though our infatuation with the possibility of fabricated beings that approximate our experience is ever-present in art and media, “After Yang” opts for a less definitive and more philosophically inquisitive route.

Via video call, the thoughtfully curious, Zen-like director expounded on the multitude of existential musings that swirled around his adaptation, including his own constant reassessment of his Asian background, the human need for meaningful validation, and his protagonist’s discovery of loss.

What do you find most intriguing about the discovery of loss and the understanding of emotional attachment that the protagonist, Jake, undergoes in the film?

I was so interested in how the main character has to almost catch up with a grief that he didn't know he had. If the story was just about a son dying at the beginning, I think we would all understand the immediacy of that kind of loss, but because of this speculative fiction aspect of it where he loses really an appliance or something he bought to help his daughter, his first sense of loss is just convenience. I thought what was so fascinating about the ingredients of loss itself, about the necessity to really absorb someone's presence before you can really feel their absence. In this discovery he may think that he was trying to save Yang or get him fixed, but in reality Yang is fixing and saving him just through that process of reconnecting to a life that was passing by him. For me, I know what it feels like to be detached in the world. It protects you from emotion and feeling. Growing up is really about making yourself vulnerable and exposed to things that maybe later on will break your heart.

There's also this urge for him to discover who Yang was through his memories. It’s interesting to consider the things that we don't know about the people we love.

For sure, my appreciation and love for my parents has been also a slow discovery. We're an immigrant family, so when I was a child they were mostly working just to help us survive. And I went a long time before unpacking them, and then you realize they have whole histories and stories and loss and real grief and tragedy. And I do feel like that exists all around us. It's so easy to be self-consumed and not think about these profound embodiments of time that walk among us and that every person is really worthy of being opened up and exploring the universe that's within all of us. We're all a testament to existence and the pain and struggle of it, but also the moments of beauty. That part of my own process in writing this and trying to understand Yang was really trying to understand, in many ways, life itself, the way we all experience this daily existence.

If we had access to the inner thoughts or the memories of people that are gone the way Jake has for Yang, would that be beneficial? Or is it perhaps too scary or invasive to see the unseen sides of those we think we know?

It could be both. There's this moment right before we unpack it in the film where there's this idea that it may be spyware or that what we will see might be disturbing. But that's always the risk of getting to know anyone. Once you do start unpacking the layers of people your marriage or your relationship gets deeper. There's a lot that we can present for the first few months of getting to know someone and eventually other elements of us get exposed. So accessing the real life and story of people would not just be a fairy tale of goodness, but there would probably be other elements that we would have to confront as well. I don't know if I would want to be able to have such access, like one might have for a robot. The human access we have might be the best way to try to understand a person.

In this reality there seems to be a hierarchy between humans, techno-humans and clones. Why did you decide to note the difference between these modes of existence?

I wanted to treat it a little bit like it was sort of mundane. Since we're not yet there, and who knows it we'll ever get there, it all seems fascinating to us. Sometimes when we tell the story, we do it from the perspective of everything being fascinating now, but vacuum cleaners used to be fascinating to people. I watch Ozu films and during the fifties appliances, like a washing machine, were a big deal. Of course, no one thinks about these things as big deals today. But I wanted to understand the future with that quality of the mundane and these bots and even clones are, for the most part, just incorporated into life. And there doesn't need to be a real big moment of that as a discussion, but still we might all carry our own kind of prejudices as well. It was interesting to me that Jake does have his own hierarchy and he does question the validity of clones. I like that because in the book, you get a sense that this couple really sees themselves as very progressive, but then we all realize that we have our own prejudice and create otherness regardless of what political camp we're in. I identify as progressive, so hopefully we're more sensitive, but they're certainly blind spots in our lives.

Why do you think we are so fascinated with the replication of humanity? There's so much science fiction and fiction in general about the creation of entities that resemble the qualities that make us human.

Maybe our instinct is to create in order to understand ourselves better. Honestly, I don't know, but I do think there is a real fascination with this and you can see it in the history of art itself. In the way that art becomes more realistic with sculptures and then photography, there is this real deep desire to capture our existence. A writer friend of mine just shared the story of the person who invented the Polaroid camera and he described it as the need to know that we exist in the world. He was really driven by that and thought that if humans could validate their own existence it would make for a better world since this is what we're longing for. But we're so lost and disconnected from our own existence that it consumes us. So he invented this camera thinking it would help us validate or recognize our own existence. There's something almost primal in us that needs to know that we exist and we do that by replicating ourselves.

There's a scene in the film when Jake asks if Yang wanted to be human and Haley Lu Richardson’s character Ada explains that it’s very human to assume that was his desire. Why did you choose to verbalize this notion in that conversation?

I love some of those films that have that “Pinocchio” storyline, but I've often also wondered about that because as humans our sense of existence is such a struggle existentially and philosophically, like, “Why are we here?” And I've often thought, “Oh, robots don't have to ask that question. They know their origin story.” Not knowing your origins can be really haunting for us. You wonder if it's all meaningless. And so our human obsession to think that everybody wants to be human is something that I wanted to question. But also I was interested in that he wasn't obsessed with being human, but that there was something more about his own sense of identity or his longing for place that felt, for this story, like the more interesting question. But I definitely wanted to circumvent that. It's funny because, going back to your other question, it's because we have created things that seem like they're humans that maybe we imagine that they want to be fully realized. But I also know that we have pets, we have dogs and cats, and I never wonder if my cat wants to be human. They seem perfectly content being cats. I almost wish sometimes that I was a cat as opposed to being a human.

Tea is a very important element of Jake’s life, but it also feels like something ancestral contrasting with this delicately futuristic world. How did this very intimate approach to tea become part of the narrative?

I felt really moved by the way tea is described in the documentary from the 21st century, “All In This Tea,” that Jake quotes in Werner Herzog’s voice. So much of that conversation is also about what that pursuit even means. There's something about it revealing our own sense of loss to nature. And there’s also the way in which certain kinds of processes or hobbies can create also a deeper sense of meaning, going back to this sort of struggle of being human. In some ways cinema is that for me, but I know with other friends it's tea, it's architecture, it's so many things that we find to try to make sense of being modern in this world. At this point Jake has lost his love for tea and it has become a job and whatever meaning it gave he is struggling with in the moment. That's also something I can identify with. And I'm sure you can too, like there was a moment where you and I loved films and it was unrelated to what we did for our job and then it becomes something more, and sometimes we can lose that thing that has been so compelling.

There's also a visual element in the film, almost like tangible synapses, when Jake sees Yang’s memories that seems reminiscent to tealeaves simmering. How did you come this representation of the interface?

That's really beautifully put. Talking about a future that has an organic quality to it, I did want to avoid a metallic, glass, industrial future and reimagine a future that had maybe already gone through that process and had had some sort of ecological catastrophe, and really needed to reorient as a human society a way to survive, and had been humbled in that way. In doing that, I wanted this relationship with nature. It wasn't an abandonment of technology, but a kind of integration and not just as some trend, organics as an aisle on a grocery store, but really what would it mean if it was a vital part of surviving. Then I had to think about the interface of memory or technology where there was something that contained that same organic element. I didn't want the interface of Yang's memory to feel like a computer desktop with files and folders. I wanted it to stay a mystery to me. It's a very astute observation that you make because I think Yang is longing for a sense of place. And we see it in that tea conversation and the way that tea connects us to the forest. I love that it's almost as if his memories are trying to create a shape of space and place that he longs for. So there is a real relationship between the way that was designed and this conversation about and the longing for a sense of place.

You are an accomplished editor, and I find it rather unique how in this film you use the repetition of certain lines of dialogue to reinforce or confront the way memory works. Tell me about your desire to manipulate how we perceive the things that people say or do in this way.

I wanted so much of the way these different realities are presented, both Yang’s memories and then human memories—even these sort of video conversations—to just use the language of cinema to offer those distinctions as opposed to some layer of VFX, transparent graphics, or tinting of the screen. And I knew that the repetition would be the experience of human memory and would be set differently than Yang's memories, which are always from his POV. You can revisit it and it's the same thing every time. But human memory is far more pliable and fragile. And, as we know, every time you recall a human memory it changes. Studies show that you never have the same memory the same time.

Then in the context of loss or trying to recover a memory that you might start finding as meaningful, I do think that you're almost auditioning or feeling that scene from different spaces because you're are trying to get to what matters to you and reshaping it. So I just knew that I would capture that through this kind of repetition and hearing lines over, but maybe a little bit differently. Two of those moments are from Jake's memory and one is from Kyra's memory. I think that if we had a recording of that actual conversation it would feel different than what we're experiencing as a human memory, because suddenly there is more love or care that's growing from both of them. That sweetens that memory. It makes it more meaningful. At the time maybe certain things weren't absorbed, but there's something about that process where they're suddenly trying to attune to everything that might have been significant about it.

In one of those scenes, the nature of honesty is called into question. Yang begins a response saying, “Honestly,” and Kyra counters by asking if being dishonest is an option for him. Perhaps the key quality of humanity is our capability for deceit?

When I was writing these conversations with Yang, I wanted to keep a sense of mystery about Yang even to myself. I didn't ever feel like I had a God's point of view of who Yang is and how he worked and what his programming was. I would write that as if I was also having this conversation and it would surprise me. I would have a line that he would say that I didn't know if he was saying that to the comfort humans, to reveal a kind of imperfection, or like you said, some human quality, or if it's true that that they can be dishonest. Sometimes he'll say, “Oh, I lost my train of thought.” And that was interesting to me, but I didn't know the answer for it. I thought, “Oh, is he saying that to comfort me as a human? Or is he being real?” That was sort of the delight of those conversations because I was trying to understand Yang myself.

What are your thoughts on the role of cultural identity in relation to Yang? In this near future learning about one’s origins has been outsourced to entities like him. His main purpose is to help Mika connect to who she is culturally.

This is where it was really interesting to me because the author Alexander Weinstein, who I met and adore, is not Asian. And so when I adapted the story that element of his Asianness was fascinating to me because it only took me a moment to realize, “Oh, he's not Asian. He's the construct of Asianness.” And this manufactured Asianness was something I could surprisingly identify with. As you know, when you're feel like you're a part of a diaspora you're dislocated from the history that you come from. And you're trying to understand your own sense of cultural identity. For me, it's an ongoing struggle to understand where I exist in that spectrum of Asianness. You certainly feel like sometimes you're not Asian enough. Then you also have to contend with even the perception of being Asian and what that means and this whole history of the construct of what people may even assume Asian is to be. So there was so much of that element of this story that I was really taken by and wanted to explore and understand. It was a real surprise because I didn't know that it would be so relatable, that an Asian robot would be so relatable to me. He was asking those questions about his own sense of what it means to be Asian, and being really disconnected from it historically and culturally, but at the same time that is his whole reason for being. It was fascinating.

Do you think that the significance of cultural identity and specificity will disappear or change in the future? The family in the film is mixed race and the world today is becoming very blended.

That's a really interesting question from all sides. I feel like it's inevitable that we will continue to be a more diverse society, more blended. There's obviously a reaction from a whole history of white supremacy and that is uncomfortable to think about. And we can feel the rumblings of that reaction. But my hope is that this more progressive diverse society will win out, but you never know. That's the perspective from one wing of society, but I think from the people of color there might be an equal sense of some loss if their identities get blended out and is not a part of their own story. It's a complex question. I have also found myself recognizing that maybe in my longing for some place, my home is with the fellow people of the diaspora. I feel that I relate more to the people who understand this constant state of displacement or dislocation. There's an identity to be found there with other immigrants and other people who understand this as the basis of their identity, which is in between worlds.

The opening dance sequence is of course very energetic and draws the viewer in, but to me it also speaks of a family ritual, something they do together as a unit. How you were thinking about this group choreography when you wrote the script?

I love that. I definitely had thought of this, but this is the first time someone has noted the ritual part of it. When I was writing the beginning I thought, as soon as Kyra says, “I want to be a family and a team,” that we would suddenly see it in its most concrete example of a family being in sync and dancing together. But there was also that idea of it being meaningful, you hear it later in the film when she says, “Will we ever dance again?” Even in the future this is something that families do together. In identifying with being a family of four versus a family of three you imagine that these families compete based on their family size. That was always something that was on my mind. No one has ever mentioned it till now, but there is some ritual quality to it that I was leaning into.

Going back to the organic quality of the reality in “After Yang,” the design of the spaces the characters inhabit and the costumes they were appear to align with this minimalist, nature-oriented philosophy. How did you and your team achieve this seamless connection between theme and aesthetic?

All credit goes to the production designer Alexandra [Schaller] and Arjun [Bhasin] the costume designer. Knowing that it wasn't necessarily going to be talked about explicitly in the film, we had this backstory of a society that had been humbled and they had to integrate with nature. That really became the story base for them to create the design of the world. Alexandra is very eco-conscious herself as a designer and so she was able to implement so many elements that I'm sure are invisible to the audience, like recycled rainwater or copper as a prominent material. She was just so mindful of what that future might feel like. With Arjun, who is from India, the way he dresses feels like how we all should dress in the future. The clothes were very influenced by Japan, Korea, and India. There's a mix of influence. Colin asked if he could wear some of these costumes once he started seeing it, even before we started shooting, and really got into the body of that time and Jake. I know that it was really helpful for him as well, so they were not just props, but they were really a part of the world and the texture of existence itself.

Museums, as containers of memory and knowledge, seem to be a major presence in your work, definitely in “Columbus,” but also here as the family ponders whether Yang should become an object of study in one of them. Can you put into words your attraction to these spaces of academia but also of contemplation?

Museums are really strange places. Once I discovered them, once I was sort of sensitized to the world of objects and that history and aesthetics, it became a sort of sacred space for me, but also profane. You also understand how complex those histories of museums are, which is often also invasive. It's a very interesting space for me personally, because it has been a space where I've been able to encounter objects and histories that have provided real fuel for thought and reflection and just pleasure sometimes or confusion. It's a quiet space, but as more of an interior person, it's a dramatic space for me as well. Certainly, there's that element in “Columbus” and in ”After Yang” is even more complicated because they have to make a decision and there's money involved, and then you have to question what is valuable about these spaces? I don't have an answer for it, but it’s always fascinating to me, as a place of negotiation, of aesthetics, of reflection.

"After Yang" is now playing in theaters and streaming on Showtime. 

Carlos Aguilar

Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. 

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