After Yang Director Kogonada Explores the Inevitability of Alienation

by Kyle Turner

Courtesy of A24.

In Kogonada’s sophomore film, After Yang, grief unspools in hushed tones, baleful gazes, quiet, quotidian memories. A family’s (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) “technosapien” named Yang (Justin H. Min), bought to keep their Chinese adopted daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) in touch with her cultural heritage, malfunctions and “dies,” leaving them in anguish and in a place to finally confront their actual working familial dynamic and the role Yang played within it. Aska Matsumiya and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score hums and buzzes, characters murmur trying to get closer to the truth of what this caretaker meant to them. Scarier still, they encounter how Yang felt about himself. Do androids dream of a racialized self?

Between human memory and technological storage, analog and digital, authentic and artificial sits Yang, not a Chinese robot but a robot designed to be Chinese; not family member but someone, something designed to be in the family; not someone honest, but something created to tell the truth even when theirs is at such a distance. In memories that revel in subjectivity while also unearthing emotional truth, Kogonada looks at characters facing their own dislocated sense of self—in the family, in society, and in genre fiction, too.

Kogonada, who honed his cinematographic eye making video essays online (for the likes of The Criterion Collection), suffuses his film with yearning, a desire to be filled up, a knowing and intimate interrogation of what it means to connect when the bonds seem, at first, to be synthetic. Even in its whispers and silent, longing looks, After Yang’s emotional timbre is explosive and splintering, a gently devastating masterful melodrama of disaffection and alienation. Here, Kogonada speaks to W about the choices he made while crafting After Yang.

Could you tell me a little bit about the starting point for the film?

Theresa Park, who was one of the producers on the film, [and I] had met some time ago, and she really wanted to work with me, and I wanted to work with her. She was like, “I'm going to find material that we're going to work [on] together. She found that she had the rights for one of these short stories in this collection [Children of the New World: Stories by Alexander Weinstein], and she had asked me to read it. But then she encouraged me to read other stories. I found [“Saying Goodbye to Yang”] within that collection; it wasn't the story that she had rights to, but when I told her, I was like, “Oh, there's something about this story that has the ingredients of things that really resonate, and that I felt like I could expand and that I wanted to explore.” So, she got the rights to it. I met with the author, and he's this lovely person who was just like, “This is yours to explore.”

What was the adaptation process like for you, especially after making your first film, Columbus?

It was great, number one, because I got to meet Alexander, and he really did want to give me the freedom. The story was very small; it [takes] place in a day, so it had to be expanded. It was nice because there were things that interested me, but [weren’t] necessarily fully explored in the short. Because Alexander's not Asian, but I am, I also thought there was something really interesting about this robot being Asian, and really a construct of Asianness. It took me a moment to realize, “Wait, he's not Asian, he's this manufactured version of Asianness.” That was something that felt very relatable in a strange way; I thought, “My own struggles with my own sense of Asianness often feels constructed.” Both living outside of the country where I was born, or where our histories are, you're trying to make sense of it. And there are all kinds of perceptions that you have to borrow and that you have to contend with where other people see you a certain way. That was very exciting. As I looked at the elements that I really wanted to expand and explore, that really became the starting point of creating this particular world in the story.

In terms of the construction of Asianness, I think what the film offers is a really fascinating interrogation of the racialization of technology, and specifically the racialization of science fiction or speculative fiction. There are so many pieces written about how the look of a lot of sci-fi films, from Blade Runner to Firefly, is often pulled from East Asian aesthetics, but there are so infrequently Asian people in those films. I was wondering if you thought about that during the creation of this project?

That was very organic, because being the person who both visualizes the story and wrote the story, of course, I was going to write it differently. I mean, I do think that people who write [sci-fi that uses Asian aesthetics and] who are not Asian, I don't know what their intentions are, but they don't have access to [Asianness]. In a way, it is decor. Maybe a lot of them love it or fetishize it, or, there's a lot about Asian culture that [they] think is rich, and [have] the best intent, but they are outside of it. For them, it's not deeply a part of their being. So it was, of course, going to be refracted through my lens, and that was going to be a different starting place. We do have this sort of decor, but it's not just as fashion and it's not just as a pure aesthetic. For me, it suggests even the struggle of our sense of displacement and trying to make sense of who we are. This is why it's so important to have different voices, because suddenly these things that have become the background of so many films, are being foregrounded differently.

Yeah, I think there's such a beautiful exploration of this sense of displacement from myself as an Asian person. I'm a child of adoption, so this film ultimately meant a lot to me. I'm curious as to what drew you to fuse these issues of identity and adoption, specifically, with the role that technology plays in fleshing out one’s sense of self?

That's such a good and complex question. Can I ask you if your parents are Caucasian?

Yeah, they are.

And did you have any Asian influence while you're growing up?

When I was younger, my mother tried to share certain parts of my cultural history with me, but it felt very outside of myself: sending me to different classes and giving me computer games to help me learn Mandarin and whatnot, but it never really stuck. I developed this sense of resentment and internalized racism, and a desire to reject and just assimilate.

I wish we could have a longer conversation. That's all very, very interesting and engaging. My two boys are adopted from Korea; we knew that we wanted to adopt, but part of [our desire to] adopt from Korea is because we knew that there are, in these transnational adoptions, a lot of Asian kids who are adopted with whatever intent within white families, but the ability to connect them almost feels artificial, or like a burden. I thought, Oh, very naturally, we have a growing Korean family, and that could be just a part of that connection. I think all of this was written in the story already. I don't believe the author adopted, so he was just writing this Asian robot and adopted kid, but for him, it was something to create the short story. For me, all of that felt so deeply personal; an even deeper level of that sense of displacement. But the more I think about it, I think we all struggle as human beings in a modern society, with a sense of displacement and dislocation. It's difficult to find meaning in this world. So I don't want to say that's exclusive to just a group. But I knew that those are all issues that are important to me and writing it was a process of trying to struggle through it, through story.

Some of the most beautiful parts of After Yang are when you embrace the subjectivity of memory. You articulate this through multiple takes and angles of the same memory, and have sound and line readings overlap one another, just slightly differently. Could you talk about that, especially in relation to how technology shapes our sense of memory?

That was one of my favorite parts of it. I knew that it might be disruptive for some, but it was always the way I wanted to approach that, and it also juxtaposes human memory versus Yang's memory. Even though the environment is sort of elusive, once you get to memory, it's very certain, and it can be repeated over and over, and it's not going to really change. Our perception of it might change, but the memory itself isn't going to change with human memory. I wanted to explore subjectivity by the elusiveness of trying to capture a moment or a scene in your life, and that you're almost having to audition memories. But also you're reshaping it even as you're doing it. I think studies have shown that every time you recall something, it’s already changed, it’s never the same thing. That’s something that I have really learned to value about human memory. We all have these things in our pockets. In fact, we're trying to record so we don't forget it, and then we just look at it, and it's certain, but there's something that's also lost in that certainty. I have been much freer in my life to stop recording and allow myself to just absorb it.

I think what's happening in this film a little bit is that the father and mother are rethinking [their relationship to Yang], and they've overlook[ed it]. Somehow through the process of remembering that memory, it feels more intimate and there's a deeper sense of Yang.

One of the standout moments is the sound of Mitski singing “Glide” in one of Yang’s memories. But what's so heartbreaking about that scene is that the memory cuts off specifically, in the middle of the word “loved.” Why did you edit the scene in that way, cutting off that particular word?

You want this cathartic [moment here]. I love that song, [but] I also am reserving it for this final little moment, too. It's cathartic to hear it in the end credits in its full context after we and Jake [Colin Farrell] have gone through this process of [interrogating] this need to exist and understand existence.

It was a dream of mine that Mitski might cover this song. It’s from All About Lily Chou-Chou, which was about alienation. So much of that song has stayed with me, and then if you're a fan of Mitski, you know how raw her music about longing is. It's so authentic. And “Glide” meant something to her, too; she was in Japan when that song was released.

When I [cut the scene like] that, there was something also partly instinctual to it. There was something disruptive about it.

There's such pleasure in denial, in a way.

I knew that once all of that happened, it was vital. Cutting it at that moment [in the memory scene], really keeping that tension—[this] wasn't the place for that catharsis.