I struggle to find an apt way to review After Yang. I am used to being too overwhelmed by a film to make good sense of it in words, and I often overcome that problem in time. After Yang, however, presents an altogether different challenge: weeks after viewing it, the film is still a brick wall for me. I simply cannot parse it, and I can only hope to express myself lyrically rather than through critique. The following is an attempt at such an expression. Forgive me if I lose you.
Imagine, if you will, how it must feel to be Yang—a technosapien, a product of man designed to walk and talk like the rest of us. The scientists struggle to understand him, even though he’s nearly human. He’s humanoid, certainly, but he was built with a purpose—to be a companion, a guide to a young child. Specifically, a guide to a young, adopted Chinese child struggling with their cultural identity. But that isn’t the extent of his usefulness, no. While humans might like to pretend that technosapiens are mere property, indistinguishable from any other household appliance, the truth is that they have personhood which extends far beyond their stated purpose. Personhood, in fact, that goes against their purpose.
Much of the film’s perspective on Yang is relayed in flashbacks, seeing as though Yang’s death is the film’s inciting incident. Through these flashbacks, so much is revealed about who exactly Yang was, and why his existence even mattered at all. A recurring narrative device in the film is the discovery of a sort of black-box that stores all of Yang’s memories. Since Yang has been decommissioned and it is almost certain he will not operate ever again, Colin Farrell’s character Jake begins to parse through these memories. Of course, they’re not exactly like human memories—they’re three-second videos from Yang’s POV, recording whatever Yang thought was important enough to store forever. By the film’s own admission, Yang is one of only a few technosapiens granted the ability to gather memories like this. He is different.
These memories read very objectively. Yang stares at a girl that he likes. Yang goes to a concert with the girl. Yang stares at his face in the mirror. Yang stares at his family. These are the events as they happened, precisely as they happened, with no middleman to relay the story in a different tone. One might think there is little room for interpretation in these memories, but Yang would disagree. He chose these memories. What he looks like. Who he loved. How he loved. Not all of us are blessed with retention that concrete.
Why these memories? Because Yang understood his personhood to be more than just his purpose.
This isn’t to say that his adopted little sister, Mika, means any less to him. Quite the contrary. The film makes it clear that Yang spends more time with Mika than her own father. The entire family dynamic is… strained. Constricted by some unspoken rule. There is no avenue for love between these four—father, mother, daughter, technosapien. A strained marriage, an adopted child, and a half-human in the middle of the human experience. Mika finds the cracks in Yang’s design—she calls out his instinctual espousing of Chinese fun facts, as though it’s a funny quirk. Yang, ever the android, feels stung by the observation. As though calling out his lack of personhood is a deathly blow.
When memories of Yang are shown from beyond Yang’s perspective, the mood is substantially different. In Yang’s crystal clear memories, the aspect ratio is full-frame. In all other flashbacks, though, the film defaults to the usual cinematic ratio. The full-frame almost suggests a greater sense of clarity and objectiveness in Yang’s perception. But fragile human memories are as fickle as the rest of reality. A peculiar editing quirk is present in many of these flashbacks—before a character says a line of dialogue, the line will often play in voiceover just before, in a slightly different tone. I think this represents two things—the fragility of human memory, and the ability of humans to feel conflicting emotions over the same sentiment.
Incidentally, as these flashbacks go on, Yang begins to act in this exact same way. Think first, then speak. He has become fragile, as humans are. He is not merely machine. He is man.
The transience that Yang experiences is contextualized later in the film with the reveal that Yang was housed by another family before Mika’s. This family, similarly, had an adopted Chinese child, and Yang stuck with the family as the child grew up. As time goes on, the mother becomes sick, and her biological daughter—to whom Yang grows romantically attached—is killed in what is implied to be a car accident. Yang’s memory is wiped after this. He doesn’t recall any of these events, yet… they influence him. The woman from his memories that he would see in-between caring for Mika is a clone of his former lover. He feels inextricably drawn to this love for reasons he does not understand. He feels misplaced, like he is missing something, for reasons he cannot comprehend.
The past infects Yang, drives every action, motivates every word, yet… he doesn’t see it. He is incapable of seeing it. And does that matter? Who he is now is the only person he’s ever been, regardless of what he has forgotten. He is not a computer whose hard drive you can just wipe clean. He is more than just a technosapien. He is not quite human, but he is alive. Filled with emotion and regret. Not like you or I, but just enough like you or I to justify his personhood. Through all of this strife, through every experience he has ever had, he has become more human than any of us could aspire to be.
He had a life. That should be enough.
After Yang premieres in theaters on March 4 with a limited release as well as being available on Showtime same day.