An Interview with Kogonada on After Yang
By Sam Bodrojan
After Yang sneaks up on you. Adapted from a blunt, jarring short story by Alexander Weinstein, the film, baits the viewer into assuming there will be easy answers to the questions it raises. In an unspecified future, Yang, an android purchased by a family to teach their adopted daughter about her Chinese heritage, malfunctions. The father (Colin Farrell) attempts in vain to save Yangâ€™s life; after all, his daughter is distraught over the loss of her brother, and robot warranties are tricky beasts. While lugging him between body shops and second-hand suppliers, he discovers Yangâ€™s old memory-recording drive. After sifting through the memories, he tracks down a clone (Haley Lu Richardson) with whom Yang shares a deep connection. A museum asks the family to donate the hard drive so they may study it and put the technology on display. The father declines.
Yet thereâ€™s so much else here, elements that could never fit into a mere plot summary. A work of thoroughly embodied speculative science fiction about privacy and the essence of a soul, director Kogonadaâ€™s second feature fires on multiple semiotic cylinders. In an era where most stories about artificial intelligence settle for pat moralism, After Yang is boldly, refreshingly unconcerned with the fashionable, and it's as compositionally assured and deeply felt as Kogonadaâ€™s debut effort, the masterful treatise on modernism in the wake of the American meth epidemic that is Columbus. The aesthetic serenity of After Yang gives way at the edges of the film, where privacy advocates are disappeared by the state and prejudice dictates the disposability of living beings. Itâ€™s a world where grieving forgotten love leads to futile attempts at replacement. The quiet of the film is an existential vacancy, which its characters struggle to even acknowledge.
Kogonada never questions the validity of Yangâ€™s soul, never entertains the notion that Yangâ€™s poor treatment by the familyâ€™s father is morally defensible, never waivers in his baseline assertion that the audience is wise enough to witness the unjustness of a stratified society. Those kinds of dilemmas, the ones that preoccupy lesser works in a similar vein, are almost entirely bypassed. In its stead, the audience discovers a profoundly personal examination of what it means to find identity in a world that has displaced you, and which refuses access to experiences that still reverberate through your body. In After Yang, memories slip into the self, and the self slips into cinema. The androidâ€™s memories unfold in a montage of insect pressings, porch shadows, the hair on the back of his loverâ€™s head, before doubling back into Farrell's memory, the angles slightly shifted, a cinematic recontextualization of the camera as mediator of memory. Maybe a third of the way through the film, squinting at an irregularity in an otherwise unassuming compositionâ€”while the characters are talking about something, anything, mundane logisticsâ€”I caught the mirrored reflection of an exposed heart. Nobody on-screen is at the right angle to see it, but the viewer can. It is the rare work that reassembles itself anew every time it seems about to settle.
I spoke to Kogonada over Zoom, ahead of After Yangâ€™s release on Showtime and in theaters March 4. His camera was off. In its place was a static image, the emblem he has used for nearly a decade, back when he rose to minor internet fame as the editor of a series of extraordinary, wordless video essays: four black dots in a square formation, set against a white background. I spent the interview staring intently at those dots, imagining them as a face. Kogonada has a really sweet voice.
Reverse Shot: Your video essays tended to focus on individual directorsâ€”not just their formal interests but also their observable, qualitative focal points. Iâ€™m thinking in particular about your Hands of Bresson piece. What do you consider to be some of your artistic fixations?
Kogonada: [laughs] God, you know, Iâ€™ll be honest. I would feel uncomfortable trying to identify them, and Iâ€™m just sort of starting out. I know I have them. When Iâ€™m on the set, Iâ€™m learning about what Iâ€™m constantly drawn to. Part of it is instinct, and part of it is your own obsession, what youâ€™re drawn to. Once I started making films, without losing that theoretical approach completely, thatâ€™s when you start gravitating towards things that move you or that attune you. But yeah, I think I would maybe be the worst person to identify that.
RS: If I were to assert the obvious, I would say edifices, at least, have sort of cemented themselves as prominent features of your work. Of course, there are the buildings of Columbus. But I had a question about the house in After Yang. It has this very particular architectureâ€”itâ€™s distinctly American modernism in an old-hat way, but it has all these urban sustainability features. What were the priorities in scouting houses for production?
K: Over 60% of the film is in that house. I didnâ€™t want it to be too large, because I didnâ€™t think they were a wealthy family. I think we film it, and it looks large, but thatâ€™s all windows and our lens. It is a tiny Eichler house. You wouldnâ€™t imagine how small it is. There werenâ€™t many Eichler homes on the East Coast. Eichler tried to bring those houses over, but it never took. You see those houses more on the West Coast. There are only, like, three in the New York area. This one happened to be abandonedâ€”they were trying to sell it, and no one had bought it. It was all-white, stripped down. We actually just walked in. The door was open, nobody was there, and I was like, â€śWe have to look at this.â€ť There was something about the interiority of the space, and there was a tree in the middle, and I just thought, you could visualize this having its own story element.
Immediately, Alexandria [Schaller, Yangâ€™s production designer] and I talked about that space and not wanting it to be that kind of mid-century architecture. We wanted to not have the familiar design. This was about a future of possibility. It wasnâ€™t dystopian, but it was a question: â€śWhat if this future had to harmonize with nature? What if a tragedy happened that really humbled us as a society?â€ť With that in mind, we created this organic echo of the future, that was also about survival. A house not built from a catalog, but from a society that said, â€śIf we donâ€™t do this, weâ€™re going to have another catastrophic event.â€ť We never told that side of the story, but it was our motivation in so much of whatâ€™s behind whatâ€™s in the film.
RS: The song Mitski sings in the film is from Shunji Iwaiâ€™s All About Lily Chou-Chou. Thereâ€™s a tendency in Iwaiâ€™s films to focus on relationships that almost resemble traditionally defined dynamics, but move into something more nameless, like in A Bride for Rip van Winkle. Haley Lu Richardsonâ€™s character, this clone with an enigmatic but deep connection to Yang, feels of a piece with Iwaiâ€™s protagonists. What drew you to these films? What brought you to incorporate that into After Yang?
K: I think youâ€™re right on, in regards to what heâ€™s exploring. I mean, it wasnâ€™t a direct, â€śOh, Iâ€™m gonna try to borrow that.â€ť When you become preoccupied with making a film, thereâ€™s very little space for reflection. So much of it is on the run, with a ton of pressure. This is also me processing how influence works. My great discovery in cinema was that it wasnâ€™t just a place to escape, but a place to suddenly be put in conversation, not just with the content, but also how the form expresses itself. There are a number of works that are so deeply under your skin that they feel like memories, that you almost donâ€™t have to think of it as something outside of you. Certainly, Iwaiâ€™s films are like that. All About Lily Chou-Chou was one of those films that has never let go of me while Iâ€™m writing my own stories. There are reasons certain films resonate, because they resonate with your own struggles, in trying to understand your own relationships and space and time and meaning and all of those things people struggle with. At least, maybe itâ€™s that way for a certain type of person, who has existential angst or feels like they are displaced or dislocated somehow. These things become a part of their everyday thoughts.
RS: Thereâ€™s a lot of images of displacement in your work, and in your characters. John Choâ€™s resistance to his fatherâ€™s work in Columbus complements the way you recontextualize an American city by evoking Ozu in the compositions. Yang himself is disallowed a sense of place as an android, serving as a kind of â€śhistorical teaching toolâ€ť for Farrellâ€™s daughter, who is also struggling to connect with her own cultural heritage. What draws you to depicting displacement in your work?
K: I know that I have struggled with a sense of displacement, though I donâ€™t know if Iâ€™ve necessarily aligned it to the work. But, of course, thatâ€™s true. The ongoing process of your own identity, who you are, where you belong, if you belong anywhere, itâ€™s a constant. As someone with an immigrant family, and being a part of the Asian diaspora, I think I was always longing for a specific place to call home. â€śOh, Iâ€™m a Chicagoan,â€ť or â€śIâ€™m a child of the Midwest,â€ť or â€śReally, when I go back to Korea, that is who I am.â€ť Increasingly, I realize what is consistent about my being and my identity is that sense of displacement. Displacement itself is the constant in my life. I really donâ€™t belong anywhere, and this is a struggle. When I was in Korea, shooting Pachinko [the upcoming Apple+ series], I felt that so heavily: that I was around my birthplace, that this is where my history is, and yet I also felt so othered there.
You know, I flipped this word in my head, and maybe this goes back to Lily Chou-Chou, but maybe â€śbelongingâ€ť is this longing to be. Maybe belonging is just me longing to be comfortable in my condition. Itâ€™s not other people who have to say, â€śYou belong,â€ť but me, I have to. That was just a year ago. So obviously itâ€™s not something Iâ€™ve come to any sort of resolution about. I do know itâ€™s an ongoing struggle, but Iâ€™m finding more comfort in displacement, or even diaspora communities. Maybe this is just the modern condition, you know, I think some people would say that. Maybe itâ€™s not just immigrants, but we all feel dislocated, and we all feel displaced and that is the struggle for meaning and also the source of so much hatred and violence. Because sometimes excluding others is what makes you feel like you belong. Not by some positive force, but by some negative force to make you feel like youâ€™re part of an in-group. Itâ€™s ongoing but Iâ€™m not surprised itâ€™s showing up in my work.
RS: Thereâ€™s a thread through the film about private versus public images, especially with the video calls, where these tableaux are implicitly understood to be monitored, and that surveillance and dissolution of privacy derail domestic turmoil. Do you take pictures at home, in a more amateurish sense, for yourself?
K: [laughs] I do! Sadly, lately, itâ€™s been about this cat, who Iâ€™ve fallen in love with. I will say this, in regards to cameras as an aid to memory: I have intentionally stopped recording quite a bit. There was a time when my kids were growing upâ€”theyâ€™re still growing upâ€”I found trying to record these events in fear of maybe not remembering them. I made a decisive move to stop doing that. There is something about memory, and this is the difference between Yangâ€™s memory and the human memory, allowing your memory to dismiss events, or sweep them away from you, that I have really come to value. With human memory, your mind has to reinvent or reshape that memory every time you interact with it. I find myself wanting to protect that a bit, even as there are things you want to recall. There is something to allowing your memory to do that work.