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'After Yang' offers a rare moment of connection

Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Justin H. Min in the movie 'After Yang'
Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Justin H. Min in the movie 'After Yang'

Arguably the best movie at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and one that’s certain to end up on some year-end best-of lists, was After Yang, from the South Korean-American director Kogonada.

It takes place sometime in the future, as Colin Farrell and his wife live with their adopted daughter, Mika, and Yang, the robot "brother" they bought to help Mika understand more about her Chinese heritage. Yang is very much a part of their family, he's been with them since Mika was an infant, and he teaches the girl about things her parents never could.

Yang is a warm, thoughtful companion, but he isn't human, and one day he simply shuts down for no obvious reason, which is distressing to all of them, but especially to Mika. After some quick diagnostics at the local fix-it store, it becomes clear that Yang's problem is a "black box issue," meaning this is a proprietary matter that no one outside of the manufacturer is allowed to deal with, and really the only option is to recycle Yang before he starts decomposing.

Farrell ends up with access to Yang's memories, three-second snippets of time that the robot deemed important enough to store. And this enters us into a patient, empathetic meditation on humanity, memory, connection, and what we prioritize in our lives. Yang turns out to have secrets that the movie could play for comedy or suspense, but Kogonada isn't interested in those things, he's interested in our human experience, even when it's not human, and in what our world looks like both through our eyes and when reflected by someone else.

The movie is visually arresting, though rarely flashy, and it's that patience Kogonada has that's so valuable— we're not here to be distracted, we're here to experience this moment, and to create real, true connection. Tea leaves floating in water, a few seconds of joy from a song, a small smile. This world offers so many opportunities to be disconnected, but if we slow down for just a moment, we can see all of the different ways we can be with each other, too.

After Yang is available on Showtime

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.