In the moving 'After Yang', androids dream of more to life : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the new sci-fi film After Yang, a family suffers a loss when their human-like android Yang (Justin H. Min) suddenly breaks down. It stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith as the parents of an adopted child who are faced with deep existential conundrums. The film was written and directed by Kogonada, and is currently in theaters and streaming on Showtime.

In the moving 'After Yang', androids dream of more to life

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

In the quiet sci-fi drama "After Yang," a family suffers a loss when their human-like Android suddenly breaks down. They each process and grieve the absence in different ways and learn there was more to their android than they'd initially realized. The film is beautiful and introspective, and it stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith as the parents of an adopted child who are faced with deep existential conundrums. The very talented filmmaker Kogonada wrote and directed it. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "After Yang" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Here with me today is the host of NPR's Book Of The Day podcast and a reporter for the culture desk, Andrew Limbong. Hi, Andrew. Welcome back.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey, Aisha. How are you doing?

HARRIS: Good. It's so great to have you here. So "After Yang" is set in a not-so-distant future where people commute in pods and purchase humanlike androids as family members. Yang, played by Justin H. Min, is one of those androids. And he belongs to Jake and Kyra, played by Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith. Now, the couple bought Yang so he could be a, quote-unquote, "big brother" to their Chinese adopted daughter Mika, who's played by Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja. The intent was for Yang to provide companionship and a connection to her culture through what they refer to as Chinese fun facts.

When Yang stops working, Jake and Mika set out to find someone who can fix him. This proves to be a challenge, though, as Jake bounces between two people who want to use Yang's parts for their own purposes - Russ, a questionable technician played by Richie Coster, and Cleo, a museum researcher played by Sarita Choudhury. And in the midst of this journey, Jake discovers Yang's memory bank, which leads him to Yang's friend Ada, played by Haley Lu Richardson. "After Yang" was written and directed by Kogonada, adopting from the short story "Saying Goodbye To Yang" by Alexander Weinstein. The film is in theaters now and streaming on Showtime.

So, Andrew, what did you think of "After Yang"?

LIMBONG: OK. I'll be real. I watched it once, and I didn't like it that much.

HARRIS: OK.

LIMBONG: And then I watched it again, and then I loved it. I don't know. Maybe it's like one of those like two-fors because the world is so immaculately conceived, right? There's sort of implications that there was like a war between U.S. and China. There's a poster that hangs somewhere in, like, the background. And we're not really sure what happens or who wins or whatever. But, like, the architecture is pristine. Everybody's decked out in these sort of like pan-Asian fits that go, like, really hard. We got to, like, manifest this. It's all like dystopian, but nice to look at. You know what I mean? I don't know. It's like a really unsettling vibe that I enjoyed the second time around watching it. I really connected with Jake, played by Colin Farrell, who really - my guy's putting in work in this movie, dude.

HARRIS: Yeah. He's great. I love him in this. Now, you said you watched it a second time. Like, what made you want to watch it a second time?

LIMBONG: I don't know. I think my vibes just weren't right the first time I watched it. And then the second time in, I just, like, really appreciated it more.

HARRIS: Yeah. I actually was really all-in for it. I think part of it is that I kind of knew what we were going into because I'd seen Kogonada's previous film, "Columbus." Kogonada is very much interested in the mise en scene and the aesthetic and, like, the architecture, because in that movie, John Cho plays the son of an architecture - architecturalist (ph)?

LIMBONG: An architect?

HARRIS: An architect. I'm sorry. It's early where I am right now. An architect. And much of that film is actually the John Cho character and Haley Lu Richardson, who is also in that movie, sort of walking around throughout this town, this city and looking at architecture. So, like, I was kind of expecting a similar, very quiet vibe. And so obviously there's levels to sci-fi and fantasy. And I appreciate the "Star Wars" and the, like, the things that are more obviously sci-fi. But I think I'm drawn even more to the things like this, like "Ex Machina," where it's like it's sci-fi, but it still feels grounded in a way or feels like our world. And you have to kind of figure out, like, how far into the future is this world?

So I really liked it, but I can also see sort of the criticisms that have been made about the film in terms of, like, maybe not having enough information sometimes about, like, the fact that there's some allusions to China and things that have happened. Like, and where is this set? Are we in the U.S.? Are we in China? Are we in a completely different...

LIMBONG: We never know, right?

HARRIS: Never...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...As far as I know, there's no sort of hint, and they commute in these pods. So, like - and these pods are in sort of these sort of Space Mountain-y sort of...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: ...2001 sort of tunnels, so you can't tell exactly where they are. I really love the fact that, you know, Kogonada had said in an interview that often, when we have these sort of android stories, the drive of the story is an android wanting to become human. But what he was interested in was more like, OK, the humans around the android realizing that the android was actually more human than they thought. What did you think of sort of that? I know you mentioned before we, you know, sat down and recorded this, the tea scene. And so a little background - Colin Farrell's character is, like, a tea connoisseur. And he, like, owns a tea shop. Do you want to talk a little bit about that scene and sort of what it meant for you?

LIMBONG: Yeah, I mean, it's so funny. He loves tea, right? You really feel, like, the juice of, like, why he loves tea. And it has less to do with, you know, how a tea tastes and more to do with, like, the history and, like, the work that goes into it, and da-da-da-da-da-da (ph). But Yang - he's around to, like, give you, like, the Wikipedia facts about tea, right? Like, tea was started in whatever year - right? - and it was farmed by X, Y, Z. And it's almost heartbreaking watching Yang listen to Colin Farrell talk about tea with such passion - you know, and tea being, like, a very Chinese-rooted drink, right? - and Yang realizing, like, I can't do that. I'm never going to have that. I can't (laughter) have that juice.

It's really wrenching to watch. This android is, like, disconnected with, like, his identity, right? And there's a lot of talk about, you know, this movie being what it means for an AI to be human and all of those questions. Because of the cloud of war that's hanging overhead of this movie, I couldn't help but think about, like, it's also kind of like a - almost like a refugee tale, right? Like, this guy doesn't know - is so disconnected from his house, his - or his home, or whatever, like - and the question of is he human or not aside, it's - it almost doesn't matter. It's 'cause it's this thing that's feeling something, and it's feeling very lost.

HARRIS: Yeah. Let's actually - we have a clip that (laughter) - I will say it's hard to find good audio for this because there's so many...

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...Silences and moments...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...But let's actually listen to a clip from that tea scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AFTER YANG")

JUSTIN H MIN: (As Yang) I wish I felt something deeper about tea. I wish I had a real memory of tea in China, of a place, of a time. I think this would...

COLIN FARRELL: (As Jake) What?

MIN: (As Yang) Sorry, I lost my train of thought.

HARRIS: That is sort of the crux of the whole movie. That is the heart of the movie. And to sort of see him stopping himself and being like, ah...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Let me hold back here. Like, even that in itself is sort of a human quality - right? - of, like, realizing what you might say and then pulling back in that moment, which I think is just...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Really, really fascinating to watch.

LIMBONG: I got to say - when I was watching this scene, I was, like, drinking some Lipton iced tea.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: So it was just like, oh, yeah, really? And then a (imitating sipping). It's like, you know...

HARRIS: (Laughter).

LIMBONG: ...I don't know if I can taste (laughter)...

HARRIS: OK, first of all, you need to up your tea game. Lipton? Really?

LIMBONG: Yeah (laughter).

HARRIS: Oh, man. Andrew, you and I can talk. I love tea...

LIMBONG: Sorry, yeah.

HARRIS: ...So it's like...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: ...But (laughter) - so what do you think about sort of what this is? We mentioned it already, but Yang is there in part because the couple wanted him to sort of give their child, Mika, fun facts, but also to sort of connect her with the culture, but it's like, well, of course, just giving fun facts is not the same...

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...As giving culture, but I didn't know exactly how to think about this. And I'm curious, you know, what you took away from sort of what's suggested about transracial adoptees.

LIMBONG: Yeah. They're bad parents, right?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

LIMBONG: Like, I mean, I don't, like...

HARRIS: They're naive parents...

LIMBONG: Yeah, they're naive. They're...

HARRIS: ...At best. They're naive.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: And they think they're doing a good job, but they picked the most hands-off way to do this...

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...To teach this kid about her culture of origin. And I think a lot of the movie is, you know, Jake sort of trying to learn to be a father - right? - because he has to bring his daughter around, and he's sort of, like, learning how to connect with her by way of taking care of her robot...

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: ...Sent to be, like, her babysitter, right?

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: Whatever happened - whatever world they were living in, I couldn't quite tell if, like, this was, like, the norm of this world.

HARRIS: Right.

LIMBONG: Because these techno-sapiens are, like, not a dime a dozen, but it seems like pretty common, right? He's, like, a refurbished...

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: ...Sort of (laughter) version of one. And so I get the sense that whatever socioeconomic class they are, they're sort of, like, keeping up with the Joneses, you know?

HARRIS: Yeah, it's - maybe this isn't obvious 'cause I don't know how many people are familiar with Jodie Turner-Smith. So you have a white parent, played by Colin Farrell, and then a black British parent, who's played by Jodie Turner-Smith, and they've adopted...

LIMBONG: Great in the J.Crew catalog...

HARRIS: Oh, my God. Yes (laughter).

LIMBONG: ...For holiday 2021. Whoo (ph). Did you see that (laughter)?

HARRIS: They're kind of, like, a picture-perfect couple.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: It's very...

LIMBONG: Yeah. Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Like, this is the world today.

LIMBONG: Yes. I would buy clothes from that look book.

HARRIS: Exactly. Exactly. But I know you mentioned that, like, there are moments where it does get a little too heavy-handed for you.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Yeah. It's - this movie's so subtle. Like we've said, you know, we've mentioned how quiet it is. You know, there's sort of, like, lingering shots, except there's like one or two lines a character will be like, oh, so this is about memory, right? Or it's like, oh, this is about what it means to be Asian. It's like, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: I don't - we don't need to like, spell it out, you know? Like, I'm bought in. It's fine. You don't need to tell me what this movie's about. It only happens a few times, but it happens enough that I'm just like, OK.

HARRIS: Yeah. I think that's a valid response to that. I will say, one sort of little touch that I really appreciated about the film was the way that there's a repetition happening in the dialogue. By repetition, I mean they'll say a line, and then immediately afterwards, you will hear that same line said again. After kind of rewatching, I was like, oh, I think this is just hearing it from one side of the person's memory and then hearing it from the other person in the conversation - their memory of it. It's like a meeting of their two memories, and so I really loved those sort of touches that happen. But it happens, I think, at the right moments, the moments where you're supposed to feel as though we are in these memories, we are in these different viewpoints and how, just so subtly, they're just a little bit different. They're heard a little bit different. They're said a little bit differently, but it's the same line. And I think, like, that sort of subtlety is what I really, really appreciated about this film.

LIMBONG: Yeah. It was really unsettling in a nice way.

HARRIS: Also, I feel like we have to shoutout the opening credits sequence, which is just probably one of the best opening credit...

LIMBONG: Oh, hell yeah. Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Sequences I've seen in a long time, because this is, again, where we get to be like, what is this world? - because we have all these - there's, like, a regular competition where families compete in their homes doing these, like, dances. It's kind of like Dance Dance Revolution, and you get to see some of the characters who come in later in the film, like Sarita Choudhury's character, like, with her family. And the song is called "Welcome To Family Of 4."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO FAMILY OF 4")

AUTOMATED VOICE: Welcome, families of four, to our monthly dance-off. We have over 3,000 families competing tonight. Are you ready? Stay in sync.

HARRIS: And I really enjoyed that.

LIMBONG: It's so fun. Yeah.

HARRIS: It's probably the most animated that this film gets because the rest of the film is super-subdued.

LIMBONG: Because it comes out of nowhere.

HARRIS: Yeah.

LIMBONG: What did you think, though, about the Ada character, Haley Lu Richardson?

HARRIS: I mean, I think Haley Lu Richardson is fantastic in pretty much everything I've seen her in. I appreciate how her mystery sort of unravels in these really affecting ways. We see her often through Jake watching Yang's memories. It kind of ties things together and reveals things that you don't necessarily expect to see at the beginning of this movie. And I just think she's great. What did you think of her?

LIMBONG: So on first view, like I said, I thought she was giving off big, like, Manic Pixie Dream Girl energy.

HARRIS: I could see that.

LIMBONG: She was sort of there for Yang to like - as, like, a weird, like, goal - right? - so, like, if, like, Colin Farrell can see Yang connect with this woman in a romantic way, sort of like mean something or whatever. And so it sort of rubbed me the wrong way. But when I watch it again, I think her storyline has these payoffs that sort of debunk, you know, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl vibe and weaves into the broader story in a more, like, thoughtful way.

HARRIS: Yeah. I think for the most part, we learn more about all of the characters - not so much Jodie Turner-Smith's character. I think she's kind of she's there, but this isn't really her journey.

LIMBONG: I don't know if it's too much to get into it, but there was that - she does have some conversations with Yang.

HARRIS: Yes. That's another great scene. It kind of mimics the tea in that Yang has with Jake.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HARRIS: It's like her own version of that.

LIMBONG: Yeah, exactly.

HARRIS: I guess now that I think about it, the one character we don't really learn that much about is Mika, which could have been interesting to see a little bit more of her perspective because she is the reason why they got Yang in the first place. And, like, there's a lot of talking about her. Like, we know she's sad when Yang breaks down. I feel like so much of the sadness is conferred onto the Jake character. But, you know, I really liked this movie. It sounds like, Andrew, after a rewatch, you really liked the movie, too.

LIMBONG: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: I always say this, but like, it's a nice, crisp, like, 90-ish-minute movie.

LIMBONG: Oh, love it. I love a 90-minute movie. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "After Yang." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much for being here, Andrew Limbong.

LIMBONG: Thank you.

HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides the music you're bobbing your head to right now. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about the new Disney Pixar animated feature "Turning Red."

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