Many artists strive to find meaning in their work, but for kogonada it’s the pursuit that provides the meaning. In a way, if he were to “find it” that wouldn’t be nearly as special as the everlasting exploration and attempt to achieve that enlightenment.
His sophomore feature, After Yang, asks some of the biggest questions about life in the gentlest of ways. In a world where robotic children are purchased as live-in babysitters, the malfunctioning of Yang (Justin H. Min) leads his father figure Jake (Colin Farrell) on a quest for a solution. Obsessing over this need to make his family feel whole again, alongside his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), Jake is able to glimpse snippets of Yang’s recorded memories, where he finds that his android son had a whole life he never knew a thing about.
I spoke with the filmmaker about the parallel pursuits of Jake and kogonada himself in the search for answers, and the realization that the beauty of the world is in the unknowable more than anything else.
The Film Stage: I’ve seen After Yang a few times now, and even after watching other films, it’s one that keeps coming back into my mind. It’s really found this space inside of myself that I deeply value.
kogonada: That’s the highest compliment that you could give me, that it is staying with you in that way. And seeing 35 Shots of Rum and Drive My Car posters on your wall behind you, I’m very humbled to be having this conversation.
I’ve got a poster for Shoplifters right next to those that you can’t see. The other day at the American Cinematheque, you introduced a screening of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, which is a film that came to mind a lot for me when thinking about After Yang. Was it one that you felt an influence from while making this film? What does that film mean to you?
All of these films are ones that have stayed with me, and there’s something about a film that does get under your skin and you incorporate it and it almost becomes your own memory. I certainly had that with After Life. I’ve visited that film many times because it resonates and I’m still trying to discover it and understand why it feels so meaningful. It’s interesting, now that I think about it, because of course there was this real dialogue between the two films at the time. But while I asked my DP to watch some other films for After Yang that wasn’t one of them.
Now that you bring it up, though, I just think “God, this is in such a conversation with it.” The thing I love about that film is that, you know, Kore-eda was a documentarian before he started making narratives, and he approaches such a speculative space with this sort of documentarian sensibility that can ask these impossible, fantastic questions but feel so grounded in life. And then to really talk about what memories are the most valuable, or in many ways the most eternal—the ones that can sustain you in another existence. It makes you rethink the world. It makes you rethink what matters in life.
There was this really beautiful moment, I remember, where this girl has selected Disneyland and then she’s asked to rethink that, and she chooses the most mundane moment instead — something that’s so lovely but so mundane. I think about it now, years later after I got to make my own film, and having that memory in my body for a long time, and I realize that’s how influence works. It’s not so much about putting out storyboards next to each other and thinking about them together, but it’s really about the things that get inside of you.
In your film Yang is able to capture these memories as a recording, but he’s only able to get a few seconds each day. We see how sometimes he retains these bigger moments, but often it is those smaller, more mundane ones, like you said about the girl in After Life. What was your process for choosing those very specific moments that he found worth recording?
I love that restraint of it only being a few seconds as a memory versus whole scenes that were inherently narrative. Then the real question was: what could the accumulation of those memories reveal about this person that we don’t know? The film very much begins with him not being present and we were catching up to who Yang is. Yang was a mystery throughout my writing process. I didn’t fully know who he was, and I was writing to try to understand him, but I also didn’t ever want to fully understand him. I never put myself in the mind of the programmer and thought, “Okay, this is the thing I’m going to slowly reveal to the audience.” It was genuinely my own exploration, and up until the filming of it Justin [H. Min] had more understanding of Yang than I did. I wanted that to exist.
But yeah: as I was starting to write what was being revealed, I was certainly motivated in some ways by how Jake is, in his own way, thinking that maybe he’s going to save Yang or fix Yang, but Yang is in fact saving and fixing him. Somehow, in his understanding of Yang and catching up to what he meant, I knew that some of these memories in their discrete forms would awaken him to what he’s also missing in everyday life. It was both me trying to understand Yang and also understanding Jake, and what elements would awaken him—would rekindle his sense of being in the world, you know? Because I think that’s lost at the beginning of the film.
There’s a gorgeous scene where Jake teaches Yang about the process of making tea and he has this beautiful line where he says, “There’s no language for it. There are no words to adequately express the mysterious nature of tea.” I find a bit of an irony in myself as someone who writes about film for a living—that it’s often the films I love the most which are the ones I find the most difficulty in finding words for. As a filmmaker, how do you approach capturing in words and images these intangible ideas that you want to explore?
I think that’s what makes art so potentially invigorating, as someone who gets to make it, is that you’re pursuing the ineffable. Whatever mystery there is about being in this world, I think it’s unsatisfying if it’s presented as a kind of certainty. If there’s an author who’s like “I know the answer to the world and I’m going to present it,” it just feels like propaganda to me, right? It’s only those people who are trying to pursue something that they can’t quite articulate, and maybe in this thing that they’re either writing or making they’re trying to find it, but you also don’t feel like they’ve absolutely contained it. But you can see them getting close, or you can see them pursuing it. That’s enough.
To me it’s enough to pursue the ineffable, and maybe in my own right I feel very uncomfortable if I feel I’ve captured the ineffable. In some ways that diminishes the ineffable. My only hope is to pursue it in that way, but I have felt the same way as you. There are some films that I love, and anytime I try to start articulating it I feel like I’m killing it in a way. That’s always a sign that this work is really beyond words, in many ways.
Does that idea translate into your relationship with your audience? I find there’s gentle openness to your work that is very inviting and allows the viewer to bring themselves in and make our experience feel organic to us, as opposed to you telling us what our experience is supposed to be.
Yeah, I want to make works that are accessible, that aren’t exclusive and you don’t need to somehow decode them in order to appreciate them. But I also know that the works that have stayed with me—going back to what we were talking about earlier—are the ones that have given me space to lean forward, and also created a real deep sense of place. Some of the films that I treasure now the most are ones that on my first viewing I walked away almost unimpressed by them. Because it wasn’t so in my face. And there are also plenty of films that I walk away from and I’m so impressed, but the next day it has left no impression at all. It’s like it’s been disposable and I can’t even recall it, almost. It was a real new experience when I had these films that didn’t immediately register but then, weeks later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, or I couldn’t stop feeling it, and it really changed the way I even judge them. Now I always want to take time because I don’t know what films are going to stay with me or not.
So knowing that, I know there’s no formula for it. I just know the films that have stayed with me and what I care about. I’m certainly trying to make the kind of films that I would want to exist in the world, that I would want to see. I always feel I fall short, which is okay. I hope that maybe the rest of my career is always falling short of this thing that I want to put out in the world. It’s, again, the pursuit of trying to capture something that I want to express and that might have some endurance, while knowing that some people may not have a taste for that—they might not be able to access that just yet, or ever. Sometimes it’s also about becoming more familiar with something. You know, in the food world there are plenty of things that in my first tasting of it I didn’t have language for or the palette for it, and now I love it. Now it’s my favorite thing in the world.
Totally. I think there’s a lot of films, like slow cinema especially, that I’m so connected to now in my 30s that I probably would have not registered at all in my 20s.
Do you find age has some of that impact on you as well? Where you know there are things you process much differently now than you would have if you had accessed them earlier in your life? So much of that comes from life experience as well.
Definitely. I think that’s definitely right. Our relationship to life certainly changes, or maybe we acquire a taste for it. I think slow cinema, for me as well, was one of those moments where the first time I experienced it I didn’t even understand it. You’re so used to the language of how movies work and the way that… you know, there’s a structure in it, there are beats and all of that. Then suddenly you’re watching something that feels as if it’s not trying to move you through a plot. They don’t care about these dramatic points. It’s about something else. Then how you walk away from that—either you hate it all and you’re just like “Oh, this is so pretentious and I never want to see that again,” or whether you liked it at first or not, there is something that worked on you to your surprise. And then it becomes, like, “What is that about?”
And hopefully that’s genuine. Because I do think there’s that pressure of being in a kind of art world where, if you’re going to be accepted by a certain community, you have to find a place of value for it. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I think you can critique slow cinema. I think there’s certain things that can’t work, but yeah.
I will say: now that I’m an American filmmaker there’s the thing of trying to find a place for a career. These films can exist in countries where they have funding and support to make whatever vision that the filmmaker has. There are also other kinds of pacing in films that I love, so it’s an interesting place to be in to try and make something that really does reflect your sensibilities, but also as an American filmmaker those films don’t have a gigantic audience. It’s something to wrestle with.
As you describe yourself as an American filmmaker, I’d love to bring up the exploration of cultural identity in After Yang. You seed it throughout, these ideas of what it means to be Asian for both Yang and for Mika, and there’s that lovely scene where he teaches her about grafting and how your roots can stay with you even when you may become something else. How did you want to weave cultural identity into the fabric of the film?
Yeah, that was a big part of this short story for me. The author was lovely and really handed it over to me in the most ideal way of an author letting someone freely adapt their work. He is not Asian, but this robot was Asian and there was something about that construct. Once I started delving into it I, of course, realized that he’s not a “real Asian” because he is a robot. So then what is he? Oh, he’s a manufactured idea of Asianness. He’s a construct of Asianness. I could deeply relate to that element of cultural identity and I had never seen it framed in that way. I think, as much as I’ve struggled with my own sense of cultural identity, I haven’t realized how much of it is a construct. How much of it is me trying to imagine what it is to be Asian, trying to see how other people perceive my Asianness, feeling like at times I’m too Asian, or not Asian enough.
It’s really about negotiating this sense of being culturally that doesn’t have a definitive location once you’re dislocated from that place in history. That’s a whole community of the diaspora, and there’s all kinds of diasporas; I think part of the human condition is feeling dislocated as well. So there is something about that element of dislocation as a form of cultural identity that we try to understand that was such a part of writing this film. It was what drew me to it. It’s embedded… it’s not the whole thing, but it was a really interesting angle for me to understand my own sense of being and my own Asianness.
Before I let you go, I follow you on Twitter and last month you posted about how you were rewatching Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour and noticed the Ozu Shochiku box set on a shelf in the background, which you followed by posting a picture of your own Ozu Shochiku box set. I wanted to ask about your feelings on physical media. I’m a huge proponent of it, so I wanted to see if it’s something you live and die by as well?
Oh, yeah. I’m in New York right now, but usually I’m in front of my shelves which have a lot of physical media. I don’t know how much of it is nostalgia or for this moment, but I do also think it’s significant because the streaming world is so elusive. It suggests that you have things in your library and we’ve bought digital media, but we all know that it is an ever-changing landscape. For me, that was a big moment when I bought that Ozu box set from Japan. I had to buy it from a Japanese site, and I used to have to really search to get some works that I’d heard about or read in a magazine, and I wanted to try and get a physical copy. So that’s really number one.
Even as objects of inspiration, you know, I walk by them often and I rub the faces of the media. [Laughs] There’s something about it that I love having near me. They almost embody—when we talk about these memories that live within you—they embody moments of time. But I also think that, archivally, they’re significant because we’re in a world where ownership and having access is being constantly renegotiated through corporations, and it’s nice to know that I have these things for me to watch—regardless of what’s happening in these sorts of corporate worlds.
After Yang releases in theaters and streaming on Showtime on March 4th from A24.