After Yang

Colin Farrell in a dark room

Philosophical (ie moody) sci-fi movie After Yang picks up on Philip K Dick’s sci-fi reflections on the possibility of consciousness in bots. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and all that. Dick’s stories tends to arrive on screen dark – Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report – but director Kogonada decides to go one better than any of those with a film that is almost stygian in its gloom.

No matter which way you come at this movie – soundtrack, acting, delivery of speech, clothing, cinematography, framing, screenplay – that doomy, gloomy mood is there. It makes for a meditative experience, if you’re up for something that could also be bracketed with Solaris, another one for lovers of the underlit corner.

As the action opens we meet Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Yang (Justin H Min), a family set in some indeterminate future where everyone wears natural fibres, there’s barely any plastic, cars drive themselves and communication happens via life-size hologram.

They’re having their photo taken by Yang, who turns out to be a “technosapien”, a bot with smarts, who suddenly, within seconds of the movie kicking off (it’s not a spoiler) stops working, plunging young daughter Mika into despondency. She loved him like a brother.

Technosapiens appear to be contain some organic element, and so as dad Jake drags Yang from repairers official and corporate to backstreet and grungy, a clock is ticking (or whatever they do in the future). Unless he can be repaired quickly, Yang will soon start to decompose.

But before he does so, tech-sceptic and old-school guy Jake (he runs a failing business selling proper tea) discovers that Yang’s “core” contains a memory stick, part of a long abandoned experiment by scientists to see which memories technosapiens might consider important and worth saving. And as Jake starts to review what’s on the stick, the movie reveals what it’s about.

Can people form relationships with bots? Since people will form relationships with stones, the answer is obviously yes. But how about – can bots form relationships with people? Are their relationships based on love or is it transactional? What is love at this level? Does the ability to feel love arrive at the same time as consciousness? Are they the same thing? Can bots ask philosophical questions like these? More importantly, can they be troubled or changed by any conclusions they might come to?

A happy family photo
Happy times: the familiy photo



Kogonada gets visual with Yang’s memories. A montage. People. Places. Mika as a baby. A toad hopping. A butterfly. A pretty young woman (Haley Lu Richardson), who will feature later on. Wind chimes. Jake and Kyra sharing a moment of tenderness. It is like an Instagram page specialising in wellness, though these moments could also be nods back towards the pillow shots of the Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu. Which would seem like a fanciful suggestion, except that Kogonada is not this director’s given name – that’s a bit of a mystery. He’s half-borrowed it from Kôgo Noda, Ozu’s regular screenwriter. So maybe?

This is your multi-ethnic family, and though nothing is made of the fact that Jake is white and Kyra is black, much is made of the fact that Mika is ethnically Chinese. Yang was bought (second hand) specifically to give her some connection with her “roots”, even though Yang (in flashback) doesn’t seem to have got much further in his assignment than sharing a few “Chinese Fun Facts”. Quite how much Kogonada (and writer Alexander Weinstein, on whose short story Saying Goodbye to Yang the film is based) are trying to explode the notion of ethnicity-as-identity is unclear, but there’s obviously something absurd about a robot being ethnically “Chinese”, even if it rolled off a production line in the People’s Republic (if that still exists in this indeterminate future).

As said, Dark. Dark Dark. Everyone speak sombrely, with pauses between sentences… and words. The soundtrack, by ASKA, operates as if peeping over the back of the sofa – a squeak here, a murmur there. Benjamin Loeb’s mournful cinematography is on some sort of a dare to see how many lights can be turned off. That shot of the family in the garden above is entirely unrepresentative of the film. The shot of Jake (Farrell) up top, that is.

The whole thing lacks urgency but it’s meant to. It floats, in limbo, as Yang does, between life and death, knowingness and nothingness. There are things going on below the surface that never cause a ripple above. After Yang takes sci-fi about as far as it can go down a road of wistful speculation and contemplation.

After Yang – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









The New World

Colin Farrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 May

 

Christopher Columbus dies, 1506

Start typing “Christopher” into Wikipedia and , after getting to “Christo…” it will auto-suggest Christopher Columbus. This man who died over 500 years ago, on this day in 1506, still has an immense hold over the imagination, though he wasn’t the first person to discover the New World, nor even the first European, as is commonly held, nor did he even accept that he had found it, preferring instead to believe that he had arrived in the East Indies (which is why he called the natives Indians). And he was an Italian, sailing under the auspices of the Spanish monarchy, his crackpot idea to sail west to the spice islands of the East Indies having been rejected by the Portuguese and the English. Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic, in search of the easterly approach to Japan, which he believed was about 3,700 km distant from the Canaries (it is around 12,500 miles) took him to the Bahamas in 1492, where he first made unwitting landfall in the New World. He made four voyages in total, between 1492 and 1503, to what we now call the West Indies, Central and South America. Having become a brutal Viceroy and Governor of the Indies after his first voyage, Columbus was removed from power in 1500, though his voyages of exploration continued. In 1503 be became stranded on Jamaica for an entire year, finally returning to Spain in November 1504. For the last two years of his life he lived in Valladolid, writing about his voyages and petitioning the Spanish monarchy for the money he believed was due to him, as per their prior arrangement. He died of a suspected Reiter’s Syndrome, a disease causing joint inflammation possibly provoked by food poisoning picked up on one of his expeditions.

 

 

 

The New World (2005, dir: Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s second film in four years, after the gigantic 20 year hiatus between 1978’s Days of Thunder and 1998, confirmed what had just been a suspicion when The Thin Red Line came out. That he’d lost it. At least it did if you were never quite signed up to the Malick project, which is a poetic rather than prosaic way of making movies. Telling the story of Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) and the first settlers of the New World, it first presents us with a litany of woe, as the newcomers catch diseases, start quarrelling, fighting, mutinying. Malick contrasts this with the life of the natives – who are beautiful, peaceful, wise, cultured, artistic, kindly, dressed in beautifully cut clothing finely decorated. And then Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) falls for one of the natives, a beautiful young woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) who looks like something out of a Calvin Klein perfume advertisement. Together these two then conduct one of the most languid courtships in cinematic history, which is largely wordless except for a voiceover by a mumbling Farrell, which Malick intersperses with shots of an impassive Captain Smith, then the sky, then a corn plant, birds flocking, water, trees, Pocahontas (for it is she, though she is never named), Captain Smith, water etc etc.
If you want the full Malick thing, in other words, this is it. The images are astonishing, it has to be said, but the message flirts with banality – the savages are noble, the newcomers are bad and nature is mighty. Malick also introduces his variation on the foundation myth of America, a country built on youth, as Christopher Plummer’s Captain Newport makes clear in his sinew-stiffening speech about a new generation for a new country. Malick even makes guarded claims that these early explorations and settlements are the beginning of the modern era of globalisation. And then he whisks Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) off to England – Smith having dropped out of the picture for reasons I’ll let the film elucidate – where there is more visual astonishment, in what are the best scenes of the film, Pocahontas being received as a queen in a foreign land and being dressed as such.
This is a strange film of sledgehammer subtlety, but what it does have is a naive honesty – Malick makes us see things as they might have been seen by people experiencing them for the first time, almost as an alien from outer space might (see The Thin Red Line for a war film through alien eyes). This is very unsettling. Instead of being absorbed by the story – the love between Smith and Pocahontas, for instance – Malick throws the focus onto the details of the things in front of our faces in a forceful way. So – her clothes look nice, those must be chamois leggings, oh, is that corn, they’ve got dogs in that stockade, I wonder if it smells of shit in there, oh look grass waving and so on. Depending on your point of view this is all very distracting, takes us out of the film we’re trying to immerse ourselves in, or it is the film itself.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The debut of 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher
  • More fine work by DP Emmanuel Lubezki
  • The great cast includes Wes Studi, Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis
  • Malick’s unique view of the early colonisation of America

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The New World – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Miami Vice

Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice

 

 

So masculine it could be used an infertility treatment, Michael Mann’s feature length Miami Vice actually tells the same story that eventually ground down the TV series – Crockett (now Colin Farrell, then Don Johnson) and Tubbs (now Jamie Foxx, then Philip Michael Thomas) go undercover with a drugs gang, get so deep they’re not sure which way they’re facing any more, then refind themselves before screaming towards a guns-blazing finale, designer clothes looking immaculate. Built from what look like a series of high-end international aftershave adverts showcasing the very pinnacle of fast living, it is an out and out exercise in cool glamour. So was the 1980s TV series, of course, but Mann (who produced but never directed any of the TV series) seems out to show everyone concerned that this is how you do it.

“Maximum chromatic saturation” is how Mann describes the look. Full on, might be another. And it applies across the board. Gong Li puts on the stoniest of faces as the implacable villain, while the dialogue is either spat out at whipcrack speed, mumbled in that too-cool-to-enunciate way, or yelled. No one just speaks. Now take all that – the clothes, the guns, the guys, Gong Li, the unnatural vocal styling, then put some shades on it and throw it into a speed boat bouncing across the waves towards a Ferrari 430 Spider, all to a slinky electropop soundtrack. Everything in this film hums, seethes and purrs. It is a hell of an exercise in mood management. It’s so great, in fact, that you’ll hardly notice there’s no real plot.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

Miami Vice – at Amazon