Thoughts on After Yang

After having been released originally at Cannes last year, After Yang finally reached my shores (meaning my local art house theatre) yesterday. If nothing else, it made me think and that is always a good sign. Now, this isn’t really a review even if that side will seep in here and there. This is more about a different approach and expectations regarding movies.

Might include some spoilers, but since this isn’t that kind of a movie, that shouldn’t matter.

First, a weird recommendation for the movie: I almost fell asleep in watching it. While this might not sound like a ringing endorsement, it sort of is. There’s two types of movies where I fall asleep: very boring ones and very comfortable ones. This is of the latter. The movie is just so comfy and cozy that I let my guard down and feel safe to fall asleep in a public place (not that doing that in Finland is really very dangerous, but still, I often have trouble falling asleep in hotel rooms). So, yes, for those of us who are willing to watch movies that don’t include an explosion every so often, this is a nice little gem of a movie.

That was partly why I wanted to write about the movie, but here’s another point of view: The movie feels in the beginning like its setting up a spy thriller of some sort, but turns out that that was just a comment on us losing our privacy in the hands of big technology companies.

But going back, there’s a couple, who have sometime in the past adopted an asian child. Since the parents are a white guy and a black woman, they feel they need to help the child maintain her link to her culture, so they have bought her a brother, the titular Yang. Yang is mostly just a comfortable presence. He looks fully human and acts very close to a human as well, even if there is certain amount of precision in his actions, which is often the clue in movies.

The movie begins with Yang not starting up one morning and the father having to figure out what’s wrong. So, he takes Yang to a company that is certified to service such products, but they just tell him that the problem is one they are not allowed to fix and the father needs to recycle him. Well, that’s not an option since it is like a son to them and their daughter is especially close to him, so they try someone else… a less reputable shop. The mechanic there tells him that he can’t fix it, but he shouldn’t send it back either, because it will have a device that has been recording the family and the company would use that information. So, the mechanic extracts the device and then the father needs to take the device to a museum, where there is someone who can help him see what’s inside the device.

So, at this point, what do you think will be on the device? I really didn’t know. Because the way the movie was shot, I just didn’t know how to read the movie. I so often know what’s about to happen. You find a recording device in an android that has been living with you for years. In a movie this would often mean that it would turn out that the android was either into something shady or has uncovered something shady and that was the reason it had been offed. At the same time, this wouldn’t have fit the style of the movie. There was nothing like that. The mother was away one night to work with a colleague and at some point the father asked whether the two of them were “fine”. Normally this would be an indication that she was cheating on him and the android had recorded something, but this wasn’t the case either.

So, what was in the recordings? They are (for some reason) very short and at first they are just cutesy moments from the life of the family. Then the father finds other memory banks within the device. In any other movie, this would have meant that there were some dangerous secrets hidden in there, but instead its just more memories. Turns out that Yang had a sort of relationship with a woman and later on it turns out that the woman is a clone of another woman Yang was familiar with earlier in his… life… question mark.

So, in the end, the movie is mostly about learning about the inner life of the android. Even the things it has recorded are an important clue to what it/he felt was important. There are just moments from the life of the family and spending time with the (girl)friend.

And that’s the story. The big secret was that Yang had been in use for longer than the five days that the company who sold Yang to the family claimed and that Yang had an unexpectedly humanlike inner life with complex feelings and his own desires that he felt he needed to keep secret to do his duty within the family.

Now, again, I liked the movie quite a bit, because of this different kind of approach, but at the same time, it does feel overly long (at less than 100 minutes) and at many points it felt like it was leading me down a path that it wasn’t actually doing. So, I don’t really know what to think of it.

The main point is about artificial intelligence and the nature of emotions. While this is obviously a topic that has been talked about for ages, it is also just a nicely low-key take on it.

You could also argue, that it is about famlies and complexities within. We don’t know everything about the people closest to us, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

Then there’s the anti-corporation privacy issue and corporations wielding too much power and hints at a some sort of underground resistance against corporations, but that never goes anywhere.

So, in some ways the movie is a mess. It feels like they had to pad the story to get to the length they had (and were probably contractually obligated to reach) and the padding isn’t working for the mood of the story. It’s as if the movie would have needed one more pass by a better writer or a better director at helm to bring the whole thing home. On the other hand, how many directors are there, who could have actually reached that? Sciamma? Anyone else? Movie language just emphasizes drama and violence and energy so much and there just isn’t that much of that here and there shouldn’t be either, but using that language in a different way requires skill that isn’t necessarily on display here. At least not at all times. Sometimes it works, but again, there’s just things here that should have been cut. They just don’t belong in this movie.

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