After Yang was the Closing Gala of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Flickfeast reviewed the film at Sundance 2022, calling it “Science fiction at its most meditative”. Festivals Editor Dallas King sat down with writer-director Kogonada and actor Justin H. Min who plays Yang to talk about the film.
Flickfeast: For me going to the cinema is like a meditation for me allows me to sort of switch off from everything. With After Yang, there was this message of sort of the importance of sort of switching off and sort of enjoying life, not through a lens. As a famous philosopher once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t look around every once in a while, you might miss it”. How important was that message in the story? It’s sort of been exacerbated through the pandemic with everyone having to do everything almost sort of virtually.
Kogonada: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t think of that so much as a message, but you’re absolutely right that it is. At the end of the day, it is about attention and giving ourselves a moment to pay attention to things that become invisible to us. Not because they lack of value, or they lack a kind of magic in this world, but it gets lost in the everydayness. Because they feel ordinary, even though everyday we walk around and there are remarkable things that are surrounding us. We’re looking for something special in life, and it’s all around us. So there is something about attending to the things that have grown invisible to us. And that could be people. There was a point where I was thinking Yang is like your grandparents in the corner who have all of life inside, they’ve lived this enormous life. They have memories, they have heartbreak, they have all these things, but they’re just in the corner, almost forgotten, and if we could unpack anyone, we would find universes, right? And that is what Colin Farrell’s character does with Yang.
Flickfeast: Watching the film I felt a spiritual connection between it and Blade Runner. A sort of parallel to the relationship between Deckard and Roy Batty. Where a human rediscovers his humanity through the death of an artificial intelligence…
Kogonada: No that’s beautiful. Many people have been asking Justin about his embodiment of a robot. And I love Rachael in Blade Runner. There’s something so soulful about her and there’s something so soulful about the way he embodies Yang. It creates its own kind of vulnerability and mystery. But I love that comparison.
Flickfeast: So Justin, bow do you approach a character like Yang? His death is what kickstarts the narrative of the story for a lot of the runtime you’re also not on screen despite seeing things through his eyes. It must have been an incredibly challenging part to play because even when you’re not on screen, you still feel your presence around.
Justin H. Min: It was all there in the script. So many of the scripts these days are so explicit in what they’re trying to say and do, and so much expositio, but this script is so beautifully written, and so all of these things in the simplicity of what Yang says, allow allowed the work to like, find itself in those moments like it could be the simplest line and as an actor, you You have the freedom that que allowed me to have to sort of imbue each of these very simple things that Yang said with whatever variation or gradient of emotion that we thought in terms of the human versus the robot. Calibration. I mean, it was always a mystery. It was one of the first things I asked him and he’d never gave me a sure answer. And so I sort of ran with that and sort of experimented and played and even on the days, I would find things that would surprise me, you know, you have sort of an idea as an actor of how these scenes are gonna play out. And then you, you know, do a scene with Colin Farrell journey to Jodie Turner Smith, and suddenly everything changes. And it was just so exciting to sort of play in that space. And yeah, I wanted to make sure that those scenes, as you were mentioning, they’re like, fragments of moments, but that they really felt like there was something there that allowed the family to grieve, right? Like, if you don’t feel a connection to Yang, then you don’t understand why this family is grieving. And so I wanted to make sure that that was all there. And that required a lot of preparation in terms of making sure that the things that we’re not seeing in the film, that a life existed outside of them in terms of Yang’s relationship to each of the characters.
Flickfeast: I want to talk about the tea scene. Yang clearly has several roles within this family, whether it’s sort of housekeeper or babysitter, but here he turned into a sort of therapist. Asking questions to get Jake to expand on his feelings and emotions. What was it like working with Colin on that and where did the Werner Herzog impression come from?
Kogonada: That’s from an actual documentary called All In This Tea, which Herzog didn’t direct, but he shows up in the middle of this documentary. And it’s it’s such a lovely scene, because this guy who’s just pursuing tea with all his heart is like, it’s impossible to describe tea. And then Herzog just immediately described it with such perfection. So I knew in my mind as I was writing that this was the thing that had sparked Jake to kind of pursue tea, and that he would have this memorised.
Justin: That scene was so special. First of all, Colin, learned how to make actual incredible tea. So I just got to observe him making the tea, which was such a fun sort of exercise just to watch him do that. And you talked about the peace and quietness of the film. I mean, when we were filming that scene, you could literally like hear a pin drop on that said it was so just everyone was locked in. There was a part of me that was trying to fight Justin’s visceral response to acting with Colin Farrell, in terms of my admiration and fear. Then I had a moment while we were filming that where I was like, wait, I could actually use this because in the same way that Justin feels about Colin Farrell, Yang feels this way about Jake. He’s someone that he has seen from afar and admired and but not really known and as seen as an enigma in many ways. And so I thought that that was just the sort of perfect blending of real life and art and I got to use all of that for the scene. When Colin Farrell looks at you, there’s something about his presence and his energy that really makes you feel seen. And for Yang all he wants is to feel seen and those are the moments where I think Yang feels most connected to Jake and it’s like leading up to this climax where you feel like they’re finally connected. And then there’s that moment where you drink the tea and you hear the metal inside of him and like that connection is immediately lost. It’s a heartbreaking scene for me to watch as it was to play because you finally feel like they’re getting to this place where they can be a real father and son and then reality hits them in the face.
Kogonada: That’s a great observation too about him almost playing the role of therapist because you do get a sense that at one point Colin did have this real passion for this craft and there was something that has been missing. That conversation really sort of resurrects it and rekindles it and they find themselves with this possibility of connection. I also love the idea too, that it awakened something in Yang, like his own longing to have a connection to this thing that he sees Jake making because it references his own Asianness.
Justin: Yeah because I think in many ways, Yang has a connection with Nika, and with Kira, but never really had that with Jake. And for the first time they feel like they could have had that.
Flickfeast: Finally, Ke Huy Quan who was in Everything Everywhere All At Once said he came out of self-imposed retirement after he saw Crazy Rich Asians as he felt that an authentic Asian-American story could be finally be told in Hollywood. Do you feel there has been a positive shift in terms of representation and opportunities?
Justin: Absolutely and I think the real change comes when Asian writers and directors are sharing their own stories. I think the disconnect has long been when non-Asian writers and directors are trying to share our stories. That comes across inauthentic. Fortunately we have people like K blazing the way for us and I’m excited for what’s coming.
Kogonada: I certainly think there is a right and wrong way to tell our stories. Quan is a perfect example. Someone who had to go through the struggle and it was so great to see him again in such a rich role. John Cho is another one who had to fight for a long time to get interesting roles…
Justin: Like Columbus *laughs*
Kogonada: *laughs* and others, not just my films!
After Yang will be released in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 22 September