‘After Yang’ breathes new life into artificial intelligence

After Yang starts with a dance. the opening credits from Kogonada’s new sci-fi film are an invigorating introduction: a montage of the film’s entire cast performing a synchronized musical number in groups of four, as part of a virtual competition. The dance moves are stiff, though still accompanied by flashes of improvisation, and the whole cheery sequence is the kind more movies could endure. But it also has a thematic purpose: the scene begins and ends with a family unit that seems perfectly in sync, happy to follow a fixed routine, until suddenly one of them is caught in a loop, repeating the same movement again and again. again, shattering that illusion.

The defective dancer is Yang (played by Justin H. Min), and the viewer quickly learns that he is a robot, bought to serve as a brother and babysitter to Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the daughter adoptive Chinese of the American couple Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). Based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein titled “Saying Goodbye to Yang”, After Yang is a small-scale but impressive sci-fi film that tackles the most important question of the genre: as technology permeates deeper and deeper into our lives, what does it mean to be human?

When Yang breaks down at the start of the film, Mika is unsurprisingly unprepared – she is a young girl who has lost one of her closest friends and can only dimly understand that he is not made of flesh. and blood. Jake, though sympathetic, treats Yang’s malfunction more like the loss of a useful device, sighing and dragging the inert body to a repair shop in hopes of recouping his investment. But the more he learns about Yang’s inner workings, the more Jake realizes just how much of a personality this artificial being had. The story is that of a technological discovery, but After YangThe metaphor of is broad and powerful, prompting us to consider the lives around us that we might mindlessly ignore.

The film is in good hands with Kogonada, a visual essayist who made a surprisingly confident debut in 2017 with Columbus, another stark and simple story of interpersonal connection. In this film, two people roam the architecturally fascinating streets of Columbus, Indiana, while discussing both their shared love of public space and their personal family dramas; perfectly composed shots mingle with quiet moments of intimacy. After Yang has similar painterly visuals, which help create a lush vision of the future that only hints at past devastation. The storyline implies that some sort of war between America and China has led to mass adoptions of Chinese children, and thus the creation of beings such as Yang, who serve not only as companions, but also as tools to expose these children to facts about their Chinese. heritage.

This story is part of the reason why Jake initially sees Yang as utilitarian: the robot is like a combo of servant and walking encyclopedia, a super toy for Mika that can also help with the dishes. But a sensitive computer can also disrupt our understanding of humanity. This staggering notion is one of my favorite sci-fi tropes. A film like Steven Spielberg’s AI reacts with constant horror to the idea that we could imbue the machines with consciousness and thus curse them with the daily burden of having emotions, of experiencing love, as well as loss.

Kogonada approaches the same dilemma from a more oblique angle. Jake has the techs open Yang’s brain and he rummages through the hard drives. For some of the characters he enlists for help, including an alley tech dealer named Russ (Ritchie Coster), the encoded memory files are a terrifying example of over-surveillance, a complex piece of fabrication that seeps into in your house and spies on you. for unknown reasons. For museum curator Cleo (Sarita Choudhury), Yang’s digital archive is proof of her conscience and signifies a new stage in human evolution. Eventually, Jake meets Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), a mysterious figure who has built his own relationship with Yang, and he begins to probe a past he didn’t know his “son” had.

After Yang is deliberately told, closely following Jake as he uncovers new bits of Yang’s memory and also realizes how estranged he has become from his wife and daughter. Farrell’s performance is sensitive and subtle, the furthest scream from his joyful landscape – chewing in The Batman (which is ironically released the same weekend). Just as Kogonada slowly reveals new aspects of Yang to the viewer, he pulls Jake out of the existential funk he’s mired in with similar care. The result is a pensive drama that plays like a silent mystery, seeking to understand not just its human protagonist, but the deeper foundations of all social bonds.

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