You’re unlikely to find many in recent years like After Yang. Acclaimed director Kogonada’s curious sci-fi flick blends philosophical ideas around artificial intelligence and memory into a dark, grief-driven mystery.
Colin Farrell stars in the drama, as Jake, a near-future tea seller whose already troubled marriage becomes even more so with the closure of Yang, the family’s android. More than just an advanced Alexa, Yang was bought as an older brother to Mika, Jake, and his partner Kyra’s adopted Asian daughter.
All was not well with Yang, and a dive into his memory bank reveals secrets that prove increasingly difficult to understand. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking thriller, After Yang is the place to be. Following its premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, the pic is now available on Sky Cinema. Kogonada and star Justin H Min sat down with us to explain the production of such an alluring movie.
The Digital Fix: After Yang is amazing work. Kogonada, I was wondering if you could tell me about the layout of the film? Memory plays a big role in the film and perspective too, what were you thinking when you plotted the story?
Kogonade: Yeah, that’s a good observation, because for me and Benjamin, the DP, it was about trying to deal with these different realities that we were going to experience as viewers and presenters. You know, in some ways, cinema is like storing memories anyway, isn’t it? We collect all these moments in time and then try to put them together. The best cinema for me are the films that are part of my memory.
So that was the ironic thing in which we were building a movie about memories, and just like some kind of nerdy theorist, I was always drawn to that element of cinema itself. So we were trying to use the language of cinema rather than that of special effects to arrive at these different realities. We had different aspect ratios, we had different goals; we were never going to be heavy handed about it, we didn’t want to have a filter, so we all knew we were in that moment.
Once we had an idea of what human memory would look like, and I knew I was going to use repeats and layers that weren’t fixed. [Unlike] many other things, our reality is kind of fixed. We knew that Yang’s memories would also be on a different lens, and we would change the aspect ratio, and then the type of phone conversations would also be different. So we mapped out, first, how those are going to be presented, and how we’re going to present it, and then ultimately create a narrative that would support those layers.
Much of what we understand of Yang as a character is a bit removed from your performance, Justin. We live those memories in the movie of robots being first person and what else, how did you keep a tether to that and the emotional line of the character?
Justin H Min: That’s an excellent question. I just wanted to make sure there was life outside of those scenes, right? Because you’re absolutely right, we get those main flashback moments with each of the characters. But obviously Yang has lived a lifetime with his family, so I wanted to make sure that even though we don’t see those scenes, they were still inside of me while filming the movie.
I spent a lot of time creating my own set of memories for Yang for each of the characters so that those specific memories didn’t just feel like they were suspended in the air and attached to nothing, that they had l feeling connected to a real relationship that Yang had with each of these characters. And, of course, the mystery of these past lives of Yang and whether Yang is aware of them or not.
I don’t necessarily want to give my opinion on this, because I think it’s up to the audience to interpret this on their own terms, but I obviously had my own opinion on Yang’s recollection of past lives and his awareness of these things.
K: To add to that, what he accomplished, I thought was a really tough act, because you could create a story where Yang is part of the current family world, and then he breaks down halfway through, or even further, and there’s a lot of emotional real estate you could build. Then it would almost sound like the story of someone dying in a family.
But before the credits end, you don’t know Yang at all, he’s already out of commission, and that’s really Yang’s slow discovery. As an actor, there was a lot to play in the realm of this memory space, and there’s all this fragmented space, so that we can really at the end of the film, have an idea and catch up on the grief. That’s what happens to Jake as he makes up for that heartbreak he didn’t know he had.
For the public, we do not give real estate in advance. So we don’t feel any emotional loss of Yang at first. If it doesn’t have enough of a presence in the genre of memory scenes, we’ll never feel that connection. It’s a difficult task, because we gave him these moments, and then often it was fragmented, and he had to have enough presence for us at the end of the film, so that we had the feel like you know him.
Colin Farrell’s performance is excellent. As the film tackles these heavier concepts, it makes sure you’re with After Yang every step of the way. Can you tell me about your work with him?
JHM: Colin is so present in the scenes that I was able to play with him. Even in the scenes where I’m like lying on the table dead, I really felt like I was in a masterclass, just literally hearing his voice and hearing how he would interact with different characters. He is just the master of nuance.
You would see him do these different takes, and there would be the slightest adjustment to the things he would do, maybe to the untrained eye it wouldn’t look like he was doing anything different, but those are the most little things that would make all the difference for each of the different takes he gave. So I learned a lot just by working with him. And off set, it’s just the consummate professional who’s so nice. So kind, so humble.
K: Yeah. I mean, it’s an honor. I mean, he’s one of the greatest to me, one of our great actors, and he’s an actor’s actor, you know, I think his burden is that he’s just a fuckin’ dashing man too, like a leading man. If he wasn’t that, he would just have been an amazing character actor because he is, and we see him now, at this point, because Hollywood took him and said, ‘ OK, you’re just gonna be that leader,” but I think it has so many dimensions.
He really is a poet at heart, as perhaps all Irish people are poets at heart, because you should see his lyrics. It’s as if he was just doing poetry. I think he’s going to be one of those rare actors where he gets better and better. He was adopted because he is also charismatic and can play great movies and be a man of action. But my God, this time he’s going through right now is so remarkable.
I just think maybe we haven’t – it’s almost insane to say – we haven’t seen the best of Colin, because he’s already created so many amazing characters, but I feel like that we may not have seen the best of Colin, and we’ve seen the great Colin, but I just think he’s going to be one of those actors where it’s surprising every decade.
Just to change the subject, Justin you worked on Umbrella Academy. If season 4 arrives (Editor’s note: the season has since been greenlit), would you be happy to come back?
JHM: Yes, if they had me. Absolutely. I mean, I love this show, this cast is family to me, so I’d be more than happy to come back. I don’t really think I have a choice ’cause I’m locked up [laughs]. But if I had the choice, I would still voluntarily return. It was an incredible race. If the fourth season is actually our last, who knows if it is or not, this would be a great way to kind of wrap it up as a family.
K: My youngest son you know is a huge fan, so you better do it. [All laugh]
Finally, After Yang brings this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival to a close. What does it mean to you to be part of such a historic and long-running festival?
K: I mean, the honor is immense. It loomed large in my mind as a festival in a place, and a festival I’ve never been to, and a place I’ve never been. If someone had just randomly said to me, like, ‘Hey, come to Edinburgh’, you know, that was on my list of places I have to visit so to be able to experience it through this amazing festival is really a bit of a dream. I hope this isn’t the last time I visit both the place and the festival, so I’m incredibly excited about it.
JHM: Yeah I’ve been to Glasgow many times, Scotland has a very special place in my heart. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve been to. But I heard that Edinburgh is the most beautiful place in Scotland. So I have very high expectations. I can not wait. And as Kogonada said, we are very honored to close the festival and to be able to share this very special film and story with everyone.
After Yang is in theaters and available now on Sky Cinema in the UK.