Tea is everywhere in After Yang. In an early moment in the film, we’re introduced to Jake in his small, moody tea shop. A customer walks in, inquiring whether he carries “Yellow Equinox.” Jake is unfamiliar with the varietal, but assures the woman that he can whip up a custom blend of tea leaves with a similar palette of flavors. She’s not there for tea leaves, however. She’s there for tea crystals — a modernist product that Jake admits he doesn’t carry.
“How can you be a tea shop and not carry tea crystals? Oh, how frustrating,” she says, huffing.
“Let me make you something close,” Jake offers.
“Oh, no, no,” she mutters, turning on her heels and walking out the door.
You can see the mounting disappointment in the fatigued, thousand-yard stare of Jake. But there is someone else in his life who desperately wants to love real tea, as we see later in the film: Yang, the young android who serves as the de-facto sibling of Jake and his wife’s daughter, Mika.
Later in the film, Yang and Jake, in a quiet moment alone, begin discussing why the latter man ever dedicated himself to tea in the first place. Yang can recite every fact about Chinese tea that exists in documented form, and it’s clear that Jake is underwhelmed by the encyclopedic nature of his artificial companion. “I’m sure you have lots of interesting thoughts about tea in China,” Jake says, with more than a touch of sarcasm in his tone.
But later, as they taste a cup of tea together, Yang begins to surprise Jake. “I like watching you make tea. It’s very beautiful,” Yang says, describing the poetry of the leaves floating in golden liquid. “I wish I felt something about tea,” he continues. “I wish I had a real memory of tea in China.”
Jake’s eyes widen, as if to say: Perhaps there’s more to this android than I ever thought.
After Yang is the second feature film from Kogonada, the Korean-born, U.S.-raised director who won acclaim for his 2017 film Columbus, a meditative drama starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. His new work is an expansion of Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” starring a peak-form Colin Farrell as Jake and Justin H. Min in a captivating turn as Yang.
Kogonada immigrated to America as a child, growing up in Chicago and Indiana, and he says the experience of trying to understand his identity was borne from this dichotomy. He’s wrestled with that all his life, including when he worked as a restless freelancer in Nashville, pumping out videos and documentaries for brands and clients.
But his career took a pivot when he attracted attention from the broader film world in 2013 after releasing a series of beautifully rendered video essays about the symbols, motifs and techniques used by key filmmakers. He decided to use a nom de plume for this new act of his career, via a reference to the screenwriter Kogo Noda, a collaborator of the auteur Yasujiro Ozu, one of Kogonada’s biggest influences. And it’s clear that he’s still enamored with meditating on the uncertainties of life. Columbus and After Yang may be extremely different movies in terms of setting and plot, yet both delve into the burden of tragic loss, personal dreams and how we cope with the trajectory of our lives.
“When I was younger, I felt desperate to get closer to truth and I wasn’t patient about it. Years later, I’m comfortable in that space,” Kogonada tells me. “I think that the idea of not ever finding truth with certainty is the truth for me. Every day is that challenge, and I think I’ve settled into that, you know? And maybe there will be a moment when that all changes.” (Farrell seems to see this too: “I don’t get the sense that he is searching for any definitive answer to what the meaning of life is, but I think he is consumed by the questions of meaning,” the actor told the New York Times.)
After Yang is one of the year’s most beautiful films, with a quiet sensibility that belies deep reflection on why and how we connect with one another. I recently sat down with Kogonada to discuss the themes in the film, why he chooses to express Asianness in his work and what a cup of tea can teach us about the instinct to live.
You’ve talked about the narrative theme of longing for connection, but only finding it in fits and starts — “transitory soulmates,” as you described it in a 2018 interview while talking about Columbus. How does After Yang expand on this idea?
That’s a really great question… Immediately I think, this film is a reflection of my own ongoing struggles of feeling both things — very disconnected at times, but also feeling the cost of connection. The minute I had children, it exposed me and made me vulnerable. I felt connected like I had never been connected before. And you realize why you feel so suddenly exposed, because [with loss], as long as you can stay disconnected, you can protect yourself from the pain of it. And so that whole question of connection, the cost of it, the meaningfulness of it, the way one might feel lost without it… I’m wrestling with all these elements in my own life.
In Columbus, you have two people who are finding a connection outside of family. Family is something that really does disrupt our own history of connection with other people, because you’re either intimate with each other — it’s a healthy connection, something really valuable — or there’s no trust, or something problematic, and it can only make other connections in the future feel fragile.
In After Yang, Jake is, to me, the most disconnected person. He’s really struggling with his own sense of meaning, and it’s a family struggle. It’s a very interior story of Jake and quite literally an interior story of Yang. And by diving into Yang, Jake is able to understand his life and his family a bit more, too.
I love the scene where Yang asks Jake, “Do you believe it? That a cup of tea can contain a world?” And Yang just says, “I wish I felt something deeper about tea.” I feel like people struggle with that malaise all the time. The unshakable sense that their life lacks something. I wonder if After Yang is a commentary on how modern technology is amplifying that feeling.
I think we as human beings feel, especially in the modern world, dislocated and disconnected. So I think of it beyond even actual relationships — there is a deeper, more structural sense of what we contend with today. [The world] is really defined by movement and speed and change. But 200, 300 years ago, you kind of grew up seeing the same people and things as your world. It might have been suffocating in its own ways, but there was some real continuity and connection to what it meant to exist in this world. I feel in the modern world, we’re fragmented. Things are changing, always. And there’s something really beautiful about that, too.
But we also have to contend with this constant sort of shallow feeling. We’re constantly trying to understand who we are. And then there’s this extra layer for me that was very interesting, and probably resonates with you, which is dislocation from your cultural identity. What was so fascinating about the story, and what I realized while writing it, was this construct of Asianness that Yang [embodied]. It was manufactured Asianness. And it was something that, as a dislocated Asian, I could relate to deeply. What does it mean to be Asian? You have to contend with the perception of Asianness. In some contexts, you’re not Asian enough. [In the] context of other people, you’re too Asian. It’s the construct we have to constantly negotiate for ourselves.
It feels like a burden, at times, for Asian creators to have to think about representation. Was pursuing a story about an Asian android a specific creative decision? And more largely, how do you feel about expressing Asianness in film, which remains a rarity, in the culture that we live in today?
I feel a certain kind of responsibility, but it’s been organic in the sense that it just feels like the best choice for these stories. I’m glad that our environment is more conducive to that. Not too long ago, even if you felt like it was the best for your story, you’d get pushback [in Hollywood] and hear, “Oh, no one wants to see that perspective.” That’s changing. There’s a growing desire and taste for other voices and faces. So I’m coming up at a good time for me to present that.
People are telling stories that have an all-Asian cast and narrative, and I’m so appreciative of that. But also, in my own world, I’ve had to navigate whiteness all my life. I was raised to be able to do that well. So I’m also interested in Asians not just being a token character in a white world, but navigating their own stories within that world.
It’s kind of funny that the kinds of art that made me most curious about my own heritage as a Korean person weren’t really the big Crazy Rich Asians type of mainstream cultural moment. It was stumbling onto Kim Ki-duk’s arthouse film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, which has nothing to do with race at all. It made me more curious about Korean spirituality, really.
It sort of worked on me that way, too. Sometimes it’s not the explicit that does it — the “we’re gonna have a political message” film. It’s this other thing that isn’t trying to necessarily declare a message, but it works inside of you. It gives you a sense of your own history and spirituality and all those elements. That’s what I love about those artistic encounters.
You’ve talked in the past about the idea of a film staying with you — how, for instance, you think your hero Ozu’s Good Morning isn’t necessarily his best film, but the one you keep thinking about. Is that quality something you try to build into your own films?
I don’t know if there’s some formula that I can use. [Laughs] I’ve not thought about it in that way, but it’s certainly an aspect. The films that mean the most to me are the ones that stay with me, and it’s always a surprise. It’s why I always delay my judgment over a film because I can be incredibly impressed with a film and yet find it leaves no impression, and is instead sort of disposable. Then there are other films that I watch, and I don’t even know what I think about them. Sometimes I may not think much of it. Then it just stays with me and haunts me. Those are gifts to me — when a film can suddenly feel like it’s a part of your memory, and who you are.
There’s a great line in Yi Yi by Edward Yang, who talks about how some films can offer this concentration of time, a sort of condensed lifetime. As if you’ve lived a different life once before. I’ve never even thought about it until now, but that’s kind of the profoundness of Yang — you realize the more you dig into him, he’s not just seven years old. He’s lived a life. That confrontation with a profound sense of time, which we can get from cinema, is everything to me. So sure, it’s an aspiration. But I don’t know how one does it.
What was it like working on your second feature film, especially with regard to directing a cast? That was new for you in Columbus.
I feel like I’ve been really fortunate because John Cho was such a presence and helped set a really lovely, generous tone in Columbus. You realize in retrospect how important it is for your leads to help you shape a set and the approach. There wasn’t a lot of coaching or trying to micromanage their acting on my part. And so, so much of it was just this easy collaboration.
The baton’s been passed from John Cho to Colin Farrell, and it was so seamless because Colin is very much the same way — incredibly soulful. He also was incredibly generous, and we had really lovely conversations to kind of discover the film and the character of Jake. Colin already had so much insight. So it made my job easy.
Jake is such an interesting character, because he is so intrigued by a certain expression of Asian culture. We see it in his tea, the decor of the house, maybe even his daughter. But what do you think Jake learns about identity and culture through his relationship with Yang? Why does the idea of this non-person’s life ultimately matter to him?
I mean, there’s a whole history of Orientalism, right? Something that projects objects as a kind of tokenism among the white world. I think Jake certainly becomes more invested when he realizes that his child is a part of this narrative. But at the beginning of the story, he’s not, right? I don’t think he understands what being Asian could mean.
Over time, you get a sense that, through seeing Yang’s memories, Jake is feeling more connection than ever with him. There is a real disconnect, because it’s obviously not his own identity. But when you start caring about the difference of others, it’s a real step in [your own] humanity. It’s when you can start having a deep empathy for otherness that isn’t represented in you, whether it’s ethnicity or whatever. That’s the progress of Jake, who I think imagines himself as liberal, and that’s an element in the original short story that I love. His growth is very interior in the film, but we see him moving toward something more sensitized and authentic.