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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘After Yang’ plus three Kurosawa classics

A fascinating and empathetic sci-fi family drama explores the ever-thinning line between artificial and "real" intelligence, and what being human is.

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Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, and Justin H. Min in “After Yang.” A24 Pictures.

There have been robots in science fiction films for about as long as there have been science fiction films. But as the prospect of genuine artificial intelligence gets closer and closer, and our knowledge of neurochemistry grows and grows, something interesting has happened in the treatment of these genre staples. A number of recent films have attempted to address the Cartesian conundrum inherent in the realization that the line between Us and Them may be fuzzy or even practically nonexistent.

The latest of these is the very human drama After Yang, which explores the emotional impact of losing a family member who happens to have been purchased second-hand. Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) are parents to an adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Out of concern that she develop a connection to her heritage that they can’t provide, they acquired Yang (Justin H. Min), an Asian-styled “techno sapien” who has become a beloved playmate and au pair to Mika, doling out “Chinese fun facts.”

Yang also proves a helpful fourth during online dance competitions against other families, but during one such event he suffers a serious malfunction. With Yang unresponsive, Jake embarks the next day on an odyssey that’s not unlike taking one’s iPad into the Genius Bar and finding out your AppleCare has expired. At least that’s how it begins, but as the efforts to fix Yang become more drawn out and less likely to succeed, the family processes his potential “death” in different ways.

Mika is, naturally, bereft in a childlike, unreasoning way. The career-oriented Kyra finds her work/life balance suddenly not to her liking. Jake, who operates a rarely frequented tea shop, finds himself wishing he’d spent more time with his “son.” There’s some interesting world-building—one of the repairmen Jake visits introduces him to a conspiracy theory alleging that these artificial siblings are merely a vehicle for spyware—and some nicely spun third-act reveals involving a mysterious young woman who comes snooping around the family’s home. But the focus is squarely on one family’s processing of grief and loss, and, by the way, the nature of consciousness.

This is the second feature by the filmmaker who goes by Kogonada, and who achieved prominence for a series of video essays analyzing cinema classics that he created for the Criterion Collection and others. He made his feature debut with 2017’s Columbus, a drama set in a small Indiana city known for its modernist architecture. Like that film, After Yang combines precision and grace in both its visual and narrative style. The film could come off as a cold, theoretical exercise if not for the empathy with which Kogonada treats every one of his characters, and the measured but effective performances he elicits.

Farrell continues to prove his indie-film bona fides in a film opening the same day as the new Batman movie, in which he plays arch-villain The Penguin. (Now there’s a double feature!) Turner-Smith takes a somewhat thankless, unsympathetic role and imbues it with tension and pathos, while Tjandrawidjaja possess a presence beyond her years. Lin has the hardest job as Yang, but manages in brief moments to capture a sense of almost-humanity that could easily be mistaken for the real thing—maybe because, in a lot of ways, it is.

The two other most recent films to address the narrowing disparity between meat and metal are last year’s Swan Song, in which Mahershala Ali plays both a terminally ill husband and father and the lab-created replica he intends to take his place when he dies; and The Perfect Man, a more light-hearted, but still thoughtful story about a researcher assigned to test the product of a company that makes custom-tailored silicon-based romantic partners. You’ll never guess what happens.

In depicting the impact of indistinguishable but artificial humans on the most intimate areas of our lives, these films take a different, more nuanced tack than predecessors like Ex Machina, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner, Westworld, or (shudder) The Stepford Wives. Those films, to greater or lesser effect, asked whether it was possible for robots to mimic humans with perfect fidelity, and whether such constructs would be welcome in society. These new ones take that fact for granted and try to imagine how such a development will affect the everyday fabric of our lives. (After Yang opens Friday, March 4, at the Hollywood Theatre. A screening on Wednesday, March 9 will be open-captioned.)

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IF YOU’RE A FAN OF AKIRA KUROSAWA, and you’re in or near Portland, then this should be an exciting weekend. (And if you’re not a fan, why are you reading this column?) Three late works from the epitome of Japanese auteurism will be screening at the Hollywood Theater, each of which must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

Peter and Tatsuya Nakadai in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran.”

Friday night, with an encore on Monday, is what many consider Kurosawa’s crowning achievement, 1985’s Ran. Saying Ran transports King Lear to feudal Japan is like saying baseball transports cricket to the U.S. It’s entirely its own unique thing, full of epic sweep and intimate moments, sound and silence, violence and stillness, and some of the most impressive battle scenes ever put to film. There’s a reason Ran is a staple of any cinephile’s education.

Saturday afternoon (and again Sunday evening), Kurosawa’s 1975 Russian co-production Dersu Uzala screens in 35mm. (Apparently, this is the only such print known to exist.) It’s an elemental tale of survival and friendship, as a Russian Army engineer and his guide attempt an epic trek on foot through the forbidding Siberian wilderness. With impressionistic, very ’70s color cinematography, Kurosawa takes a meditative approach to the tale.

1980’s Kagemusha, which screens Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, was Kurosawa’s most prominent stateside release in decades, thanks to its “presentation” by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas (the latter perhaps as a nod of gratitude for the immense influence Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress had on Star Wars). It’s another 16th-century drama, this time about a petty thief who gets drafted into serving as the double for his clan’s ailing daimyo, then ends up stuck in the job when the leader dies. That’s a thin logline to hang on a three-hour film, but, like Ran, it uses every tool in the director’s kit to draw you in to its majestic saga.

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.
Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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