Synopsis : When his young daughter’s beloved companion — an android named Yang — malfunctions, Jake (Colin Farrell) searches for a way to repair him. In the process, Jake discovers the life that has been passing in front of him, reconnecting with his wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) and daughter across a distance he didn’t know was there.
FRIDAY, MARCH 4 – IN THEATERS
Before Yang: Adapting the Screenplay
“I’m interested in the burden and beauty of everydayness,” ex- plains director Kogonada, “that fine line between being stuck and being aware.”
That tension is at the heart of his exquisite breakthrough feature, Columbus. Set amid late-summer breezes in a quiet Indiana town—a landscape marked by placid architectural se- renity and changing boldness (the midwestern community is an unlikely mecca of modernism)—characters strain against family responsibilities that hold them back. Even so, as a way forward presents itself, the characters set off on their own dis- tinct and personal paths.
“For me, Columbus was filled with emotion, but in a very gentle way,” says Colin Farrell, star of Kogonada’s new film, After Yang. “It was filled with space and had a kindness, a compassion to it. I feel like Kogonada has that as a man and as a filmmaker— After Yang has it, too. He was an absolute joy to work with, I loved this experience.”
Bolder and more ambitious, After Yang is, in many ways, an evolution in Kogonada’s artistic journey. The story is science fiction: a tale about robotic “technobeings,” artificial intelli- gence, and cloning, all of it set in a subtly designed future that’s been scarred by environmental hubris.
Still, the humanism at the heart of Columbus is very much in evidence, attuned to spatial and emotional distances, to the ache of domestic obligations and the inner terrains of memory, time, and identity.
“I was challenged by the inherent expectation of the extraordi- nary in the sci-fi genre, which often reveal mind-bending truths beyond the now,” Kogonada says. “I admittedly prefer truths that reside in the ordinary. It’s no doubt what drew me to the short story by Alexander Weinstein.”
Weinstein’s “Saying Goodbye to Yang” is a stunner, loaded with the kind of familiar yet radical ideas that mark the best specu- lative fiction. In it, a progressive American family has adopted a Chinese girl. One morning, they discover that the helper an- droid they’ve purchased—an older brother named Yang meant to ground her in Asian culture—has malfunctioned, repeatedly smashing his face in his cereal. Can he be repaired before their daughter freaks out? The father telling us the story finds his day dominated by tense discussions at genius bars. Even- tually he reckons with something more profound.
“I loved the everyday quality of his story,” says Kogonada. “It’s so utterly grounded. What if androids were as common as our phones or the human beings in our lives? I wanted to take this premise and ask if the truth to be discovered in this futuristic world was as ordinary as the memories we all carry now in our devices or more fluidly in our brains. What if Yang revealed what has always been true: that we are all ongoing records of love, of loss, of life, of time itself? We are all Yang. What starts out as an annoying task of getting an appliance repaired be- comes increasingly existential.”
Weinstein’s story is set in a future Detroit where residents are still resentful of Asian imports, and not only cars; an unspeci- fied but ruinous war has inflamed racial tensions.
“Weinstein did it really subtly,” Kogonada says of the story’s subtext, one that resonated with him as an Asian American and as someone who has adopted Korean children. “At first, I took Yang’s ethnicity at face value. But the more I explored this idea of him, the more I realized that his Asianness was manufactured by a company. He was a construct of Asianness. In a strange way, I could identify with that.”
The brevity of the story on the page was another attraction. “It takes place mostly over a day,” Kogonada says, “such a beauti- ful little piece of structure, so well-written. I knew it would give me a lot of breadth to explore the things that were pressing upon me. What does it mean to be—not even necessarily to be human, but to momentarily exist in this world?”
Short stories have always been fertile ground for expressive filmmakers seeking more than just plot. It’s a sci-fi tradition that goes back to the epoch-defining 2001: A Space Odyssey, creatively expanded from Arthur C. Clarke’s eight-page “The Sentinel,” and includes A.I. Artificial Intelligence, based on nov- elist Brian Aldiss’s “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”
After strongly considering filming in Detroit, and even visiting the city in person, Kogonada decided to shift away from set- ting the story in a specific place. “I started to think about the film from the perspective of interior spaces, to build the world from inside out,” he says. “At first, I thought we would only ever see the outside world through reflections or a door frame or window. Eventually, we included some exterior shots, but it is primarily an interior film.”
That cozy sense of interiority wouldn’t be dressed up in the typical futuristic hardware of a conventional sci-fi movie. “I didn’t want to see screens and monitors everywhere,” recalls Kogonada. “I wanted the technology to feel invisible. No wires, no switches. I wanted a future that was organic, more wood than metal, a future humbled by a climate catastrophe that had already happened.”
While the specifics would never be stated, Kogonada cre- ated an ominous backstory to maintain Weinstein’s hint of a spooked society. “There is no Detroit or Chicago because all cities have either been abandoned or significantly altered by the catastrophe.”
After Yang’s first draft came together quickly, in about three months, the filmmaker estimates. Some new characters were invented, along with a fascinating history for Yang that wouldn’t be revealed until the last act. It was time to begin sharing the script with potential collaborators—including actors who would be playing humans, clones, or something else entirely.
Ghosts in the Machine: Casting the Actors
After giving Weinstein’s narrator a name, Jake, and developing his harried character into more of a sleuth—who was Yang, really?—Kogonada began considering suggestions for a lead actor. Colin Farrell, whose blockbuster Hollywood career has developed in tandem with an impressive commitment to more adventurous fare (The Lobster, In Bruges), was someone that the director could instantly envision in the role.
“Of course, I was immediately excited and open to that idea,” Kogonada says. “I’ve loved his presence in films, big and small. There always seems to be something warring inside of his characters. In many ways, he’s the embodiment of interiority. He’s a poet disguised as a leading actor.”
Farrell, who had seen Columbus and was wowed by its quiet power, leapt at the opportunity. “He’s an extraordinarily unique director,” Farrell says. “The further I travel down this road as an actor, the more I value the ability of a filmmaker to create a world born of aesthetic sensibility and sound design. Kogonada’s somebody who has a real vision for every aspect of his cinematic world. And he does it with passion and clarity—he’s an incredibly dignified man.”
Jake runs a tea shop, this future’s equivalent of owning a vinyl record store. He doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, but he’s a committed husband and father. Yang’s collapse spurs in Jake a mild midlife crisis, a retrospective yearning to share more of his life with the quasi-son who is now gone.
“We talked about Jake’s attempt to find something tangible and real,” Farrell says, “and yet something which maintained an air of mystery. And that’s what the tea leaf represented to him. It was something he could smell, touch, plant, reap, infuse, ingest. And Yang represents the sincerity of something else—of artifice.”
Yang is a character straddling the old and the new. In their discussions before and during the shoot, Kogonada and Farrell also discussed Jake’s status within his own family.
“His wife is thriving in her career and as a mother. Meanwhile, he’s struggling at both and becoming increasingly detached,” Kogonada says. “But is there meaning to be found in taking on a more domestic role in the family? Or is there still some lingering bogus notion of manhood that must be overcome?”
The director remembers Farrell’s willingness to tackle all these intricacies of a character whose initial frustration—Yang may as well be just a broken toaster—blooms into inchoate loss.
“He was masterful at playing the quiet notes, like a seasoned jazz player who understands the power of restraint and the beauty of an unassuming note that makes all the difference,” Kogonada recalls. “It was a gift to see and experience. I was humbled by it.”
Another actor willing to pour himself into the crevasses of a suggestive script was Justin H. Min, the rising co-star of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” who plays Yang with a combination of stoicism and unblinking sincerity—even if it’s just a function of his programming.
“As an Asian American, these are ideas that I think about all the time,” Min says. “What does it mean to be Asian? Is it because I can speak the language? Is it because I look a certain way? Is it because I know historical fun facts? Is that what constitutes my Asian identity? These are all things that are explored on an even deeper level with the idea of an ‘Asian’ robot.”
Kogonada and his team underwent a thorough process to find the right Yang: an actor able to project a certain oddness without ever overdoing it. He and his team scoured a lot of audition tapes. “There was something about Justin’s voice when he read for us that I found mesmerizing,” the director recalls. “I was leaning into the screen. For me, he was Yang. There was something so vulnerable and grounded about Justin—but also a bit otherworldly. In our film, Yang is a mystery, and we find out there are layers and layers to him.”
Min remembers his first reaction to reading Kogonada’s script, while flying back from a Hawaiian vacation. It was very un- Yang. “I just started to sob,” he says, “to the point where the person sitting next to me had to ask if everything was okay. I connected to it on a visceral level.”
Pivotal family roles were filled by Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim) and gifted nine-year-old Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja; the former as Jake’s wife Kyra, the latter as their daughter Mika. Both characters are thrown for a loop by Yang’s sudden absence from their lives.
For Mika, Kogonada explains, “Malea was the first person we auditioned for the film, which was before we officially started the auditioning process, and it was clear that we had found our Mika. I saw a viral video of her singing the national anthem, and our casting director reached out to see if she could act. They put her on tape, and it was so evident. I believe she was just 6 or maybe 7 at the time.”
With Jodie Turner-Smith, they found a perfect counterpart to Farrell’s Jake—someone who could project steady self- assurance as the family’s matriarch and primary earner, but also show the character’s quiet sensitivity as her partner and daughter are foundering with a growing sense of loss, a loss she initially has a hard time comprehending. “Jodie is, was, and will continue to be a revelation as an actor,” Kogonada says. “I believe that. She is so talented and contains so much inside her. She embodied Kyra with such grace and feeling. Kyra is a world in herself. Almost the human equivalent of Yang. But she’s also carrying the burden of this family. When we see her asleep in the end, it’s well deserved.”
“I think in the beginning for Kyra, it’s definitely like, ‘Okay, my husband’s running around trying to get the Uber fixed,’” Turner-Smith says, laughing. “But Yang’s death becomes a sort of exploration for her. Playing Kyra spoke to all the quiet places in myself that I don’t often get to live inside, because when people see me as an actor, they often want something bolder, more brazen, harder. What really spoke to me here was that, while Kyra is powerful in the sense of achieving so much in her life, she is still a woman who is having this sensitive experience of feeling alone in the one place where she doesn’t want to—her own family.”
Rounding out the main cast of characters is mysterious Ada, bleached-blonde and Kohl-eyed. First seen sneaking around Jake’s empty house when the family is out, Ada also appears in some of Yang’s stored memories, a cipher. She has a connection to Yang that’s best left for audiences to discover.
For this pivotal role, a Kogonada addition to the short story, he had only one actor in mind: Haley Lu Richardson, the magnetic young actress who was a co-lead in Columbus and had key supporting turns in The Edge of Seventeen and Split.
“His vibe is purely creative, collaborative and peaceful,” says Richardson. “I literally love him and I want to be in anything he ever makes.”
“Haley Lu means so much to me” says the director, grateful for their collaboration. “I have a lot of trust in her. I put Columbus on her shoulders, and she carried it with such grace and determination. There was no place to hide in that film, not a lot of plot or coverage. She had to be present at all times, and she was more than that. Haley Lu attunes you to the moment and to unspoken layers of emotion.”
Richardson admits to becoming obsessed with the idea of playing Ada, taking cues from the script but also the makeup and hairstyling. “I was really transformed by those departments, which helped me find Ada even more,” she says. “She has a desperation to find herself as her own person.”
She also has come to appreciate the rarity of an artist like Kogonada. “I knew about the concept of ‘less is more’ but I didn’t understand fully how that correlates with acting and moviemaking until Columbus,” Richardson says. “He just completely opened my mind to how much more powerful it can be when you use restraint and get people thinking about things instead of forcing a bunch of answers down their throat.”
Building the Future: Production Design, Cinematography, Music
Uniquely for a film set decades from now, After Yang takes place mostly in a family’s home: around the kitchen table, in low-lit bedrooms and hallways. This would need to be a special house, one that carried the signifiers of the script’s environmental crisis while tapping Kogonada’s preference for soft technology and a nearly-invisible futurism.
“It’s not a science-fiction film that’s concerned with hovercraft and lasers and space travel,” says Farrell. “It’s grounded in a world that, while not named, should be recognizable to all of us, because it’s not too dissimilar to ours. We talked about it being on the brink of some cataclysmic global climate event, which led a return to a hybrid of urban and rural. It had taken hold within the cities of the world, where people had started growing their own crops on rooftops.”
Kogonada hoped to find a home that was unique but not big and luxurious, since the family was not wealthy. This proved to be a challenge. Would it be possible to find an Eichler-like home? Something like the small but airy midcentury “California Modern” structures developed by Joseph Eichler and characterized by large window walls, open floorplans, and central courtyards. “We talked quite a bit about having a tree at the center of it,” Kogo- nada says, mentioning his love of the animator Hayao Miyazaki and his frequent incorporation of nature in his frame.
As luck would have it, there were three Eichler homes just out- side of New York City in suburban Rockland County, the only three built on the East Coast. And one of them was empty.
“We couldn’t get in touch with the homeowner, so we drove around and found the house,” says production designer Al- exandra Schaller. “We couldn’t see inside because the house is designed to be very private, completely enclosed. So we knocked on the door. Nobody answered. And Kogonada said, ‘I’m just going to try the handle.’ And it opened! It was un-lived- in, a blank canvas for us.”
“It was really stripped down to nothing: white walls, concrete floors,” Kogonada remembers. “It just felt like, Ooh, this is our house now.”
After that initial act of trespassing, the production secured proper permission from the owner, completely renovating the house in the process of prepping it for a tight 29-day shoot.
“We wanted the tree to be a character in the movie,” Schaller adds. “Choosing it was very complex. I went to many orchards and greenhouses to meet the tree in person until we found this one. And we didn’t cut it down at the end. We planted the tree, and the tree will live in that house forever.”
Like the sets, costumes (by designer Arjun Bhasin) were designed to indicate a shift away from synthetics, toward sus- tainability and renewable materials. “All the clothes we were wearing had no plastic,” Richardson recalls. “You got a sense that certain things had happened offscreen, maybe dark things. People had gone through something heavy.”
“We talked a lot about the relationship between emotions, human beings, and space,” says cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (Mandy, Pieces of a Woman), working with Kogonada for the first time on After Yang. He recalls bonding over their mutual love of medium and wide shots, especially those by the master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.
“I’ve been in a lot of situations where a director will say, ‘This is an emotional moment so we need to be close on the face so we can see the eyes,’” Loeb says. “To the contrary, that actually harms the scene in some ways. Body language, emptiness, clut- ter—that’s really how my conversations with Kogonada sparked.”
“I felt immediately connected to Benjamin. We share a lot of the same sensibilities. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of working together,” Kogonada says. “We made it a ritual to eat ramen together throughout the production. We would discuss life and our approach to After Yang and to cinema in general. The broth we were consuming became the analogy for every- thing.”
Figuratively speaking, the broth of any Kogonada film is his en- cyclopedic love of movies: a deep passion for film language and a gift for elegantly sharing those ideas with others. (Charmingly, Farrell calls him a “professor.”) For years, the director has craft- ed beloved short essay-films, many of which can be found in the supplemental features of the Criterion Collection, focusing on directors as varied as Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Federico Fellini.
After Yang is rich with cinematic references. It’s a film in conver- sation with other films, but also with the idea of what it means to exist in this world (a Kogonada preoccupation). The centerpiece scene, a quiet knockout, is an intimate moment between Jake and Yang, drinking tea in the kitchen. They swirl the leaves and take a taste. They talk.
Jake may be remembering this through a haze of grief, or maybe it’s Yang himself, replaying the conversation endlessly in his memory banks. Jake quotes a passage from an old, half-re- membered documentary, 2007’s All in This Tea, trotting out a semi-decent Werner Herzog impression. (“Colin actually has a top-shelf-level impersonation of Herzog that he determined he had to bring down a notch, because someone like Jake wouldn’t have it,” Kogonada reveals. “It’s his half-Herzog.”)
But even in a referential mode, the scene has an emotional un- derpinning that elevates it beyond mere homage. Is it about a man who wishes he’d savored these parental moments? Some-
one who’d dreamed of passing a trade down to a son? And what of the irony of an Asian robot who knows every factoid about the history of Chinese tea, but can’t really taste or enjoy it? You hear the liquid sloshing in Yang’s stomach reservoir, hollowly.
“That scene was about loss, about the death of a kind of naivete and innocence” Farrell says. “Kogonada’s stuff is so complex. There’s so much going on. As an actor, he asks you to bring every bit of your humanity to the table, every fear, every hope, all the love you may feel.”
Another ace cinematic reference comes with a song, sung by young Mika to her father. (Yang taught it to her, she explains.) “I want to be…I want to be just like a melody” sings Mika, un- aware of how heartbreaking such a lyric might sound from the mouth of a robot. Later, we watch Ada swaying in the balcony at a concert, singing the tune as well. It’s another one of Yang’s memories.
The Beatles-esque song is “Glide,” from Japan’s 2001 cult film All About Lily Chou-Chou. “That’s been a dream of mine, to res- urrect that song,” Kogonada says. “The film itself is about an Asian teenager who’s getting bullied. He finds respite in this singer who’s almost mythical. He becomes obsessed with her. Anyway, this song has haunted me for a long, long time.”
When the director reached out to the singer Mitski for After Yang’s hypnotic new version of it, he found her to be an equally rabid fan of Lily Chou-Chou. There’s also an additional theme composed expressly for Kogonada’s film by Oscar-winning legend Ryuichi Sakamoto and the rest of the score composed by Aska Matsumiya.
“It’s still hard for me to believe that Sakamoto composed a theme for our film,” says Kogonada. “He’s been my favorite com- poser for a long while. It was a dream just to get to meet him and let him know how much he and his music meant to me. That he took time to engage the film, that we were able to interact, that he bought me a book, it’s all too much, really. But I’ll take it to my grave and smile or hum.”
The filmmaker continues, “Aska was the perfect compliment to Sakamoto. She, too, was a life-long fan of Sakamoto, but she has also been deeply influenced by his work, not just as a film composer, but as an experimental musician. Like Sakamoto, Aska is classically trained but turned her attention toward ex- perimental and underground music and now composes for films and art installations. She’s a force all her own. She was able to take Sakamoto’s theme and create an entire score for the film. Part of her process was feeding Sakamoto’s theme to an AI pro- gram that would regurgitate it and transform it into something new.”
Fittingly for a movie about memories (and thus making movies), the family finds itself in front of a video camera at one point. There’s a global dance-off they compete in, the four of them synchronizing their steps and hoping to advance to the next round. “I could see a world in which we do that with each other,” Min says. “To a certain extent, we do it already. I just wish I knew how to dance better.”
For Kogonada, looking at the ways we engage memory felt worthwhile.
“I was interested in exploring the difference between human memories and technological recordings. In the film, there are primarily two ways we re-experience the past: through the objective, pov-recordings of Yang and through the subjective, fluctuating recollections of Jake and Kyra.” Kogonada says. “I remember a distinct moment when I decided that I would stop recording the school performances of my sons and just let them enter into the flux of my memories. The fear was that I would forget and never be able to re-experience this moment as it appeared through the lens of my phone. But for me, there is something lovely about the way memory will alter an event as time passes, often making it more poignant or relevant or elu- sive.”
It’s a scene that unwittingly links After Yang to our own Zoom-saturated moment and, by extension, another real-life environmental crisis, the pandemic. The echo isn’t lost on the di- rector, who addresses it by way of an insightful movie reference.
“One of the many things I love about Ozu’s Tokyo Story is that it’s partly about the devastation of the city after the firebombings of World War II,” he says. “100,000 dead. A million homeless. None of this devastation is ever mentioned, nor do we see much of postwar Tokyo. But the film is haunted by a profound sense of loss. It’s a ghost story disguised as a family drama.”
“At the moment, our whole world is experiencing the trauma of a global crisis. It’s in that context that we ask: Where do we find meaning? The loss of life, and the way we’ve responded to it, sometimes very poorly, can be overwhelming. But I hope my film has a relationship to the now, whether it’s the pandemic or just life itself.”