Justin H. Min has silence on his mind. It’s a comforting blanket for the self-admitted introvert, who confesses to having the capacity for “one social function a week,” which allows him to cultivate the space for solitude and clarity with his thoughts. “Even in those once a week social settings, there are definitely times where my mind wanders,” he says with a hint of embarrassment. But that fondness for solitude can also be liberating: “Everything in Asian culture for me growing up was in silence. The not speaking, the feeling within the silence. The things that you can extrapolate from a moment of silence.”
It’s particularly apt that tranquility is the foundation of Kogonada’s ruminative sci-fi film After Yang. Min plays the titular android and surrogate brother to a Chinese adoptee, and when Yang suddenly malfunctions, the family’s patriarch Jake (Colin Farrell) discovers the hidden life he’s had outside of his servitude. For Min, the film is one of those dream projects he’s been eager to shout about from the rooftops for a good few years, sometimes drip feeding sporadic updates to press when the project was in post-production. Outside a Toronto theater where he saw After Yang for the first time in February last year, he sent me a message: “I hate hyping things, but it was everything I imagined and more.”
Despite his depleted social battery, Min is lively and unpredictably playful. He begins our Zoom call with a “Well, well, weeeell…,” as if he's one step away from becoming a Bond villain. Having followed Kogonada (whom he affectionately refers to as “K”) since his video essay days, the actor admires the director to a stan-level degree, and when his agent handed him a script from the director of Columbus (one of Min’s favorites), he made the mistake of devouring it on a flight. “I started sobbing to the point where the woman next to me asked if I was okay,” Min remembers. A few weeks later, he met Kogonada for coffee and talked for three hours. He says that he immediately felt they were “kindred spirits,” not in just their shared interests, but in the ways that they would both try to comically one-up each other by remaining quiet. “People in this industry love talking about themselves. I don't mind because I enjoy listening. But it was weird because Kogonada really enjoys listening.”
Though the film is predicated on stillness, After Yang surprises the viewer at its onset with an audacious, disco-lite title sequence in which Yang and his family compete in a Just Dance style tournament against families around the world. Three weeks before shooting began, a stressed out Min watched a demonstration of the complicated routine, and later met with the choreographer on Zoom, who requested he move his body to his immediate discomfort. Dancing does not come naturally to the actor. “I was palpitating as the days grew closer and closer to this dance sequence,” he remembers, but with lessons from “freakin’ professional dancer” and After Yang co-star Haley Lu Richardson in between takes, he pulled off one of the film’s most memorable scenes. As for Farrell, Min says he “just makes everything look cool” even when he’s doing the wrong moves.
Yang is still a mystery to Min. From the slow unraveling of his character’s private life, it is clear that the “technosapien” is composed of more than 0s and 1s, but the film never comes to a resolution on where he falls on the human-to-AI spectrum. That uncertainty even manifests physically in his voice; his intonation is not stereotypically robotic, but it also has an uncanny feel. According to the actor, that was the product of exploring Yang’s interiority, which he was still discovering while in front of the camera.
“Kogonada was so coy the entire process,” Min adds, crediting the director’s no feedback, hands-off approach for fostering a safe environment. “He never gave me concrete answers, which was super frustrating, but now in retrospect, was all incredibly strategic. I understand it all now, because he never wanted me to know fully how human or artificial Yang was. It was in that gray space that we found this character.”
It’s a markedly different way of working within the structured environment of The Umbrella Academy, the Netflix superhero series where Min first found fame, and is slated to return later this year. Season two ended on a tantalizing cliffhanger: an alternative timeline in which his once-deceased character Ben Hargreeves is now alive, sports an emo haircut, and is a member of “The Sparrow Academy.” When asked if he ever mourned for the old Ben, Min actively grimaces. “Oh, no, goodbye old Ben,” he says. “I've never been seen as this type of character before, and so to be able to lean into that has been incredibly exciting.” With a knowing chuckle, he adds: “I don't think he'll be received well because he's an asshole.”
Ultimately, After Yang not only questions what it means to be human, but it more specifically investigates what it means to be Asian. Late in the film, Jake discovers that Yang, who always emitted an air of self-assuredness to his family, was unsure if he was actually Chinese. As the cultural liaison to his little sister, he had a library of factoids stored in his circuitry—but was he really Asian, or just designed to look the part? In one pivotal scene, Jake introduces Yang to his passion for tea, explaining that simply the taste of it can reveal entire stories about the roots from which it came and the soil that nurtured it. But Yang approaches tea academically, unable to understand the drink’s emotional significance. “I wish Chinese tea wasn’t just about fun facts for me,” he reveals, a moment that represents Yang’s alienation from his Asian identity because his knowledge isn’t rooted in genuine experience. It’s the kind of internal conflict that Min feels deeply.
“It's something I grapple with as an Asian American all the time,” he says, gazing at a window just out of frame. “I enjoy Asian food. I speak decent Korean. Is that what makes me Asian? I don't have the experience of growing up in Korea like my parents do, and so in many ways, my identity is not tethered to anything real. I think that’s what causes dissonance in a lot of us. We're grasping for an abstract concept because it's not tethered to anything that feels substantial.”
Growing up in the predominantly Asian city of Cerritos, California, Min could thrive in a safe environment where he was able to embrace his Korean heritage, but he says he has come to realize that “acceptance of identity is a process.” Yang, similarly, goes through that process of discovery and of evaluating his own identity. “I think I'm at a place in my life now where I think about identity in terms of what parts bring me joy and what parts maybe cause friction that I have to let go,” Min says, listing minor things like age hierarchies, but also qualities that are harder to shake off, like accepting the hand you’ve been dealt. He’s still navigating the gray space.
It’s at this point that, overcome with emotion, Min’s voice quivers for a fraction of a second before he swiftly regains composure.
“The reason why I cried on that plane is because Yang reminded me so much of my own mother,” Min says. “In the sense that our parents had to come here and give up their dreams and livelihoods to hopefully seek a better existence for us. My mom is an incredibly intelligent, skilled person, and I've always begged her to be more ambitious, even though it was harder for her to get the same opportunities in America. But there was such a resistance to that because my mom found contentment in being of service to our family so that my brother and I could thrive in this new land.”
He continues: “It was that contentment with Yang’s role in the family that really struck a chord with me. I think that’s a very Asian thing. It's this idea that our lives might be shitty, externally speaking, but we can find a sense of internal peace, because these are the circumstances we've been given.” There are two options, he says, “I can choose to complain, or I can choose to do my best and excel.” He leaves the moment with a bittersweet smile, confident that he’s made the right choice.
Grooming by Mira Chai Hyde.
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