I was trying to describe to a friend a new film called After Yang, which is currently in theaters and streaming on Showtime. I told her it’s a quiet, small-scale sci-fi film without action sequences or alien invasions. She said shrewdly, “Oh, you mean it’s contemplative sci-fi.”
Then she had some amusing and scornful things to say about the inevitably spare and ascetically beautiful production design of this new sci-fi strand made along Ex Machina lines. Sure enough, the characters in After Yang live and work amid distractingly luxe, sparse, clean-lined decor, featuring natural fabrics, earthenware dishes, huge windows overlooking exquisite green spaces, and mostly empty shelving units with a few simple but meaningful plants and pieces of pottery set out in rigorously symmetrical patterns.
Written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Kogonada, After Yang is contemplative sci-fi all right. It has the tone of a high-minded short story — probably because it’s based on one by Alexander Weinstein, an English professor who’s affiliated with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, which turns out to be a real thing.
The film is a somber study of the impact on a family of a “techno sapien” named Yang (Justin H. Min), who’s been purchased by parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) as a culturally sensitive companion for their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). After Yang’s life-threatening “core meltdown” early in the film, Mika is devastated. But Yang only becomes profoundly important to Jake and Kyra once they’re given the opportunity to consider their memories of him, triggered by the technological retrieval of Yang’s own memories of his life as a family caregiver.
This is one of those films of grave sensitivity that’s aided by a soundtrack heavy on silence, cello solos, and single piano notes struck in a reverberating fashion. The presumably near-future setting is presented in the unlikeliest possible way. Even supposedly money-strapped people like Jake and Kyra live in environmentally sensitive, ultramodernist splendor only currently available to the richest people in California — with no explanation for how this quality of life became so commonplace. Naturally, these characters are unhappy in entrenched ways that go beyond what they’re able to say directly.
Jake runs a tea shop with no customers, for example, although tea is his ruling obsession. He briefly bonds with Yang over an old documentary he once saw about a tea connoisseur searching the world for the perfect tea, one that captures the experience of a time and place, such as walking in the woods at night. What do you think — will Jake later walk in the woods at night, contemplating all he’s learned about life and love from Yang?
Apparently, Kyra is supporting the family, and she resents this fact, as well as Jake’s vague inability to focus on his duties: breadwinning and parenting. Kyra wants the two of them to take on the cultural sensitivity issues Yang handled, along with both working full-time to afford their amazing lifestyle. It’s a terrible part, really, reducing the striking actor Jodie Turner-Smith to a posh version of the old nagging wife role. “We rely on him too much,” she says of Yang, seeming all too willing to move on quickly when Yang dies, even though her young daughter, Mika, adored him and thinks of him as her true brother.
In short, these people are god-awful, and if this film represents our near future, that Earth-destroying asteroid can’t obliterate us fast enough.
Yang is the only one who seems to like the people around him — God and his programmers alone know why — and naturally, he’s the one to be callously taken for granted during his life. Basically, this is an old melodrama narrative, and a pretty surefire one. See Douglas Sirk’s heartbreaking 1959 film Imitation of Life for another example of the loving caretaker figure — relegated in this case by race, class, and gender to the status of servant and second-class citizen — who is only appreciated after her death.
If you’ve got a working pulse, you’ll cry rivers at the end of Imitation of Life, but After Yang refuses to indulge in any such vulgar effects as inducing tears. It’s unceasingly solemn and restrained throughout, to the point that I found myself longing for any kind of genre thrill to break through its beautiful, gelid surface. Never would a zombie attack, or a sudden outburst of slapstick comedy, or a spaceship attaining warp speed have been more welcome. Even the one energetic scene, involving an online dance-off with various families (including the Jake-Kyra-Mika-Yang mélange) competing against one another in a strenuous TikTok-style routine, seems designed to elicit nothing more hearty than a faint, surprised chuckle.
And I must protest the casting of Colin Farrell in the lead role as the sad-sack husband and father. He does his best, but nothing about the larky actor makes him suited to playing a tea-fixated depressive.
Many years ago, when Farrell was a relatively new star, he did a guest appearance on a sitcom called Scrubs, typecast as a charming, hard-drinking, high-living Irishman who’s in the hospital to see that the guy he accidentally hurt worse than he intended in a bar fight comes through okay. He’s persuaded to abandon his bedside vigil by one of the doctors to avoid being arrested, and after he leaves, that doctor is promptly confronted by a phalanx of angry nurses.
“You owe us one hot Irishman,” they say.
This is how I feel about much of Colin Farrell’s career. His natural verve and wit have gone to waste while he pursues somber roles in heavy material like The Way Back (2010), The Beguiled (2017), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). It’s telling that the most delightful work he’s done recently was while unrecognizable as the Penguin in The Batman, because his exuberance and comic timing still come through. It beats me why Farrell was never cast in a series of raucous sex comedies that would’ve played to his strengths.
Hollywood owes me one hot Irishman.