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The Politics of Beauty in “After Yang”

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Comparisons between Kogonada’s new film, “After Yang,” and his earlier one, “Columbus,” are inevitable, and their differences obscure the big idea that unites them. “After Yang” is a science-fiction film, set in a vague future time at an unspecified place, seemingly in the United States; its title character is an android, or “technosapien.” “Columbus,” his first feature, from 2017, is set in its own present day, in the real-life city of Columbus, Indiana, and centered on a young woman played by Haley Lu Richardson. “After Yang” is a synthetic work of dystopian imagination, and “Columbus” is a carefully realistic view of its place and time. Nonetheless, the two films are propelled by the same impulse: the artistic basis of mental life, the politics of aesthetics.

In “After Yang,” based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein, a suburban couple, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Jake (Colin Farrell), are raising their young daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) with the help of an android named Yang (Justin H. Min), whose function is specific. Mika has been adopted from China; neither Kyra nor Jake is Chinese. (She is Black, and he is white.) The couple purchases Yang, a “cultural techno” who is meant to appear Chinese and is filled with knowledge about China, to give Mika a grounding in the culture of her native country. But Yang has a technical failure, and he does the techno equivalent of dying—his humanoid skin will even begin to decompose. Because Mika is very attached to Yang, Jake doesn’t want to trade in the android and hopes to find a way to repair him.

It’s not so easy: to save money, Jake bought Yang used, from a third-party vender, not from the official source, which is a company called Brothers and Sisters. An official repair center can’t help—it’s forbidden to tinker with a techno’s “black box”—but Jake finds an outlaw repairman, a technician named Russ (Ritchie Coster) who has the air of a rebel, and who agrees to break into Yang (thereby breaking the law) and recover his memory—not least because, as he reveals to Jake, this memory is “spyware,” and if Brothers and Sisters recycles the android, “they’ll have so much data on your family it will make your head spin.” The family even refers to Yang as Mika’s “brother”—her big brother, after all. By bringing a friendly companion for their daughter into the household, Jake and Kyra have made themselves the subjects of constant and covert surveillance.

Big Brother is watching them, and Russ, who has an American flag on his wall that’s stencilled with the slogan “Ain’t no yellow in the red white and blue” and a poster emblazoned with the phrase “Yellow peril,” is the one who lets them know. Russ could be a paranoiac, a nationalist, or a racist—or he could just be doing his part for privacy, freedom, and independence. (The main weakness of “After Yang” is its failure to evoke the politics of its constructed future; it only teases.) Russ also provides an aesthetic contrast with the family’s way of life. The future, according to the movie, will be sleek: the family’s home has large glass walls and sliding doors, it’s spare and dark and lustrous, and its sharp lines and muted tones are matched by the corporate bareness of the official service center, the pristine luminosity of the driverless, capsule-like car in which the family gets around, and the tunnels in which the car quietly glides. Russ’s shop, by contrast, is a home of clutter; it could be a garage workshop from now or from the nineteen-fifties, overflowing with spare parts and tools in compartments of rough old wood amid décor that feels handmade or scrounged. “After Yang” is unclear about the basic issue of the adoption, by non-Chinese Americans, of Chinese children, and about any political connections between the U.S. and China that it implies. Yet whatever the specific futuristic politics underlying the sense of ambient espionage and official intrusion, the movie’s world of high design and pure functional efficiency is part and parcel of some kind of oppression and danger.

In “After Yang,” the characters are living in a soft techno-fascism of petty pleasures and alluring surfaces that Kogonada boldly, slyly renders appealing. Near the beginning of the film, he offers a sequence of the central family and other families competing, from home, in a synchronized-dance competition (like an interactive Dance Dance Revolution) that’s as amusing in its set of playful movements as it is chilling in its imposed uniformity and the surveillance technology on which it depends. The synthesized video voice that’s monitoring them at home flatly declares “three thousand families eliminated . . . nine thousand families eliminated,” intones the dance steps that they’re required to copy (“collect the TNT . . . detonate . . . earthquake . . . tornado time”), and kicks out the losers as “terminated.” (The family knows that Yang is broken when, after their termination, he nonetheless keeps on dancing—a mechanical failure that resembles an act of disobedience.) The near-delight of the frighteningly uniform and supervised dance is both an enticement and a threat, as is the hermetic gleam of the family’s pristine driverless car and the methodically cool, frictionless, and impulse-free behavior that seems to be the imposed or internalized standard of social life.

The surfaces, the design, the lighting, and the movements of the characters are, indeed, beautiful—Kogonada has an eye, a sensibility—but, in “After Yang,” he calls attention to his own inclinations, rendering his own sense of beauty self-consciously seductive and potentially suspect, and making the film’s viewers complicit in the oppressive power of such beauty. The point is made clear by way of comparison to the role of beauty in “Columbus,” set in a small city that teems with great modern architecture. The young woman at the center of the film, Casey, has grown up amid a trove of architectural masterworks, and her enthusiastic attention to it has expanded and refined her sensibility. The film’s drama involves her encounter with a middle-aged South Korean intellectual, Jin Lee (John Cho), who helps to awaken her nascent passion for architecture and to find a practical way of developing it. (Like Jin Lee, Kogonada is Korean.) For Kogonada, beauty isn’t an absolute value because it’s not a linear value, not merely a matter of audiovisual gratification; it’s multidimensional and experiential, and it demands no mere swoon of delight but an introspective self-questioning and a leap of imagination.

The education that Casey gets from the complex and civic-minded buildings by such architects as I. M. Pei and Eero Saarinen is altogether different from the impersonal gloss of corporate-dictated design and the corporate manners that issue from it. Where “Columbus” presents great architecture as a living academy of sensibility, a way of seeing life as well as art, “After Yang” shows how easily the taste for beauty can be tainted, subverted, distorted, and abused by the powers that be. The very function of Yang in the family is both soothing and chilling: as Kyra and Jake acknowledge, his teachings appear principally in the form of “Chinese fun facts.” Yet Yang’s role in Mika’s life has been amplified by her parents’ distractedness, by Kyra’s long hours in an unspecified corporate job and Jake’s long hours trying to keep his tea shop afloat. As a result, the android has become not just an occasional babysitter and a source of some bland simulacrum of culture but the child’s primary caregiver. Mika’s devotion to him is apparent—and it’s her attachment to him that drives the story and prompts Jake to take exceptional measures to revive him. The results of those exceptional measures, the extraction of Yang’s memory to keep it out of the hands of the nefarious company, bump the movie into another dimension of drama and another realm of ideas.

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