When I first saw the trailer for Kogonada’s After Yang, I was extremely skeptical. Considering how the Sci-Fi genre as a whole has often abused and/or shamelessly appropriated certain aspects of Asian culture, I expected this movie to fall in that same vein; but I couldn’t have been more wrong. While Yang is a robot purchased to ensure that Jake and Kyra’s adopted daughter, Mika, stays connected to her Chinese heritage, the film ultimately subverts expectations in a way that has astounding implications for our current geopolitical moment.
In the first ten minutes, Yang shuts off during one of the family’s dance parties. As they struggle with how to interact with their own daughter amidst such a crisis, Jake and Kyra are forced to admit that they might have grown too dependent on the robot sibling, using him as a crutch to fulfill parenting duties which are ultimately their responsibility. At first, Jake doesn’t seem to mind this, saying “we paid a lot of money for him,” making it clear he only views Yang as a task-fulfilling machine, no different than a blender or vacuum cleaner. However, when he attempts to fix him, visiting everyone from specialists to sketchy underground mechanics, Jake comes across the android’s digital memory box.
As he watches Yang’s memories, Jake discovers that he was much more than a mindless robot; he’d fallen love, gained friends and even been to a concert. The specialist Jake sees is shocked that Yang had the ability to do any of these things, saying it’s not common for bots like him, whose use is ultimately cultural and instructive. Here, we already see Kogonada pushing audiences to recognize the well-roundedness of a people the Sci-Fi genre so often pigeonholes, usually only allowing them to serve a white savior. But in After Yang, what we see is an Asian man helping this family connect with each other, themselves and the world around them, and it isn’t done in an exploitative or problematic way. Yang is given a profound level of depth and nuance. His memories, coupled with the flashbacks we get throughout the film, show that he genuinely loved these people—his family, friends, and girlfriend—in a deeply human way, and was curious about the world around him.
While this tenderly-crafted internal life is enough to leave most viewers positive that this film is a contemplation on what it means to be human, I would argue that it’s not quite so simple; and based on the film, I think Kogonada agrees. As they leave a viewing of Yang’s body, Jake asks Yang’s girlfriend, who herself is a clone, if the android ever wished to be human. He looks genuinely surprised when she scoffs and says “that’s such a human thing to ask,” letting him know that while this question never haunted the android, he did think a lot about what it means to be Asian, and even wondered if, as an android, he himself was ‘technically’ Asian. I think this is where the film’s politics become incredibly profound. As theorist and critic Edward Said postulated in his magnum opus, Orientalism, the ‘East’ as a concept only exists as a creation of the West, which points to an even larger insight: race itself is a method of marginalization used to obscure our shared humanity in the service of colonialism, imperialism and outright chauvinism, which explains how Jake initially behaved towards Yang. Through Jake's distorted moral lens—which is ultimately corrected by realizing that Yang was more than he was given credit for—Kogonada captures the issue race continues to present in certain works of Sci-Fi, as well as world politics.
As America’s New Cold War against China continues, it’s almost impossible to ignore the racial valence so much of this rhetoric carries, a barely-concealed Sinophobia. What made this film so unique and profound to me was how it served as a timely reminder that race is necessarily bound up in questions of class, politics and history, and that instead of falling for corporate media’s saber-rattling we should instead focus on our shared humanity and work towards peace. This is captured beautifully when Yang shows Mika how, through the ancient Chinese grafting method, two completely different trees can join together and create new, delicious fruit. This scene not only challenges how we conceptualize family, community and the Other, but also shows the possibilities of living in harmony with nature and neighbor. This is absolutely a must-watch, one of my favorite films released this year, be sure to catch it in theaters if you can! It’s also streaming on Showtime and Hulu.