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Kogonada explains the many layers of science fiction movie After Yang

After Yang director Kogonada tells us about how memory shapes his new science fiction movie, working with Colin Farrell, and the Edinburgh Film Festival

Justin H Min in After Yang

You’re unlikely to find much in recent years quite like After Yang. The curious science fiction movie from acclaimed director Kogonada blends philosophical ideas around artificial intelligence and memory into a somber mystery driven by grief.

Colin Farrell stars in the drama movie, as Jake, a tea salesman in the near future whose already troubled marriage becomes moreso by the shut down of Yang, the family android. More than just an advanced Alexa, Yang was purchased as an older sibling for Mika, Jake and his partner Kyra’s adopted Asian doughter.

All was not fully well with Yang, and a dive into his memory bank yields secrets that prove harder and harder to make sense of. If you’re looking for a thriller movie that’ll make you think, After Yang is one to check out. After premiering at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, the picture is now available on Sky Cinema. Kogonada and star Justin H Min sat down with us to explain producing such a beguiling movie.

The Digital Fix: After Yang is an incredible piece of work. Kogonada, I was wondering if you could tell me about just putting the layout of the film together? Memory plays a big part in the film and perspective as well, what were you thinking when mapping out the story?

Kogonada: Yeah, that’s a good observation, because it, for me and Benjamin, the DP, was about trying to deal with these different realities that we were going to experience as viewers and present. You know, in some ways, cinema is like curating memories anyways, right? We’re collecting all these temporal moments, and then trying to put it together. The best cinema for me are movies that become a part of my memory.

So it was the ironic thing in which we were constructing a film about memories, and just as some kind of nerdy theoretical person, I’ve always been drawn to that element of cinema itself. So we were trying to use the language of cinema instead of special effects to get to these different realities. We had different aspect ratios, we had different lenses; we were never going to be heavy handed about it, we didn’t want to have a filter, so we all knew that we were in this moment.

Collin Farrell in After Yang

Once we had an idea of what human memory would feel like, and I knew I was going to use repetition and layers that were not fixed. [Unlike] a lot of other elements, our reality is sort of fixed. We knew that the memories of Yang would also be on a different lens, and we would change the aspect ratio, and then the sort of phone conversations were also going to be different. So we mapped out, number one, how those are going to be presented, and how we’re going to present it, and then ultimately create a narrative that would support these layers.

A lot of what we understand about Yang as a character, is a little bit removed from your performance, Justin. We experience these memories in the robot movie that are in first person and what not, how did you keep a tether on that and on the emotional through-line of the character?

Justin H Min: It’s a great question. I just wanted to make sure that there was life outside of those scenes, right? Because you’re absolutely correct, we get these main flashback moments with each of the characters. But obviously, Yang has lived an entire life with his family, so I wanted to make sure that though we don’t see those scenes that they were still inside of me when filming the movie.

I spent a lot of time sort of creating my own set of memories for Yang for each of the characters so that those specific memories didn’t just feel like they were hanging in the air and tethered to nothing, that they felt like they were connected to a real relationship that Yang had with each of those characters. And, of course, the mystery of these previous lives of Yang and whether Yang is aware or not.

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I don’t want to necessarily give my take on it, because I think it’s up to the audience to interpret that on their own terms, but I obviously had my own take on Yang’s recollection of the previous lives and his awareness of those things.

K: To add to that, what he accomplished, I thought was really a difficult act, because you could create a story where Yang is a part of the present family world, and then he breaks down halfway, or even further along, and there’s a lot of emotional real estate you could build. Then it would almost feel like a story of someone dying in a family.

But before the credits end, you don’t get to know Yang at all, he’s already out of commission, and it really is the slow discovery of Yang. As an actor there was a lot to play in the realm of that memory space, and there’s all this fragmented space, for us to really by the end of the film, get a sense and catch up to the grief. This is what is happening to Jake as he’s catching up to this grief that he didn’t know he had.

For the audience, we don’t give the real estate beforehand. So we don’t feel any emotional loss of Yang at the beginning. If he doesn’t have enough presence in the sort of memory scenes, then we would never feel that connection. That’s a difficult task, because we gave him these moments, and then often it was fragmented, and he had to have enough of a presence for us at the end of the film, to feel like we got to know him.

Colin Farrell and Justin H Min in After Yang

Colin Farrell’s performance is great. As the film gets into these heavier concepts, he makes sure you’re with After Yang at every step. Can you tell me about working with him?

JHM: Colin is so present in in the scenes that I got to play with him. Even in the scenes where I’m just like lying on the table dead, I really just felt like I was in a masterclass, just like literally hearing his voice and hearing how he would interact with different characters. He is just the master of nuance.

You would see him do these different takes, and there’d be the slightest adjustment to things that he would make that, maybe to an untrained eye would not seem like he’s doing anything different, but it was the smallest things that would make all the difference for each of the different takes that he gave. So I learned so much just from working with him. And outside of set, he’s just the consummate professional is so nice. So kind, so humble.

K: Yeah. I mean, it’s an honour. I mean, he’s one of the greats for me, one of our great actors, and he’s an actor’s actor, you know, I think his burden is that he’s just a fucking dashing man too, like a leading man. If he wasn’t that, he would just have been an incredible character actor because he is, and we’re seeing it now, at this stage, because Hollywood took him and said, ‘OK, you’re just going to be this leading man’, but I think he has so many dimensions.

Justin H Min in After Yang

He’s really a poet at heart, as maybe all Irish people are poets at heart, because you should see his texts. It’s like he’s just spinning out poetry. I do think he’s going to be one of those rare actors where he just gets better and better. He got embraced because he’s also charismatic and can play big films and be an action leading man. But God, this period he’s going through right now is so remarkable.

I just think maybe we’ve not – it’s almost crazy to say – we’ve not seen the best of Colin, because he already has laid down so many incredible characters, but I feel like maybe we’ve not seen the best of Colin, and we’ve seen great Colin, but I just think he’s going to be one of those actors where it’s surprising every decade.

Just to change subjects, Justin you’ve been working on Umbrella Academy. If season 4 happens (Editor’s note: the season has since been greenlit), would you be happy to return?

JHM: Yes, if they would have me. Absolutely. I mean, I love that show, that cast is a family to me, so I would be more than happy to come back. I don’t really think I have a choice because I’m locked in [laughs]. But if I had a choice, I would absolutely still voluntarily come back. It’s been an amazing run. If the fourth season is in fact our last, who knows if it is or not, it would be a great way to sort of close it out together as a family.

K: My youngest son you know is a big time fan, so you better do that. [All laugh]

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Finally, After Yang is closing this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. What does it mean to you to be part of such a historic and long-running festival?

K: I mean, the honour is huge. It has loomed large in my mind as a festival in a place, and a festival that I’ve never been to, and a place I’ve never been to. If someone would have said to me just randomly, like, ‘Hey, come to Edinburgh’, you know, it was on my list of places I must visit so to be able to experience it through this incredible festival, it really is a bit of a dream. I hope it’s not the last time I visit both the place and the festival, so I’m just incredibly excited about it.

JHM: Yeah, I’ve been to Glasgow a number of times, Scotland has a very special place in my heart. It’s one of the most stunning places I’ve been to. But I’ve been hearing that Edinburgh is the most beautiful place in Scotland. So I have very high expectations. I cannot wait. And as Kogonada said, we are so honoured to be closing out the festival and to be able to share this very special film and story with with everyone there.

After Yang is in theatres and available now on Sky Cinema in the UK.