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At Your Own Yellow Peril

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Benjamin Loeb/A24

MOVIE REVIEW
After Yang (2022)

Asians are often derided as robotic; in “After Yang,” the titular Asian is literally a robot. Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) form the performatively picture-perfect interracial family, and Yang (Justin H. Min) is part of that picture, too, albeit it enters slightly later, both literally and figuratively, during the film’s opening sequence.

Jake and Kyra supposedly acquired Yang, a certified refurbished model from Second Siblings (a Brothers and Sisters off-brand – are we surprised, given it is Chinese after all?) programmed with encyclopedic Chinese factoids, to help connect Mika with her ancestral heritage. It crashes, also both literally and figuratively, promptly after the credit sequence, which involves 30,000 families competing in some sort of virtual Dance Dance Revolution.

Jake is resolved to have Yang repaired, but he is unable to find any shop that’ll honor its warranty. After a couple of false leads, he’s referred to a museum for techno-sepians that offers money for Yang and its memories to be part of the collection. Yang apparently came with spyware preinstalled (again, are we surprised, given it is Chinese after all?), which allowed it to record a few seconds each day of what it considered important. The museum hooks Yang up to life support to stave off decomposition while Jake reviews its data to determine what to do. It’s a miracle that Yang didn’t also come with a computer virus, what with Covid-19 and all.

Essentially, in the futuristic world of “After Yang,” corporations and institutions have robbed Asians of all humanity while still mining their knowledge and servitude, and it’s up to White Savior to contemplate the value of their existence. Commissioning a Korean American director, Kogonada, here does not lessen all the inherent Sinophobic microaggressions in the material. To be sure, the name Mika is Japanese, as are Shunji Iwai’s “All About Lily Chou-Chou” and the song “Glide” from that film’s soundtrack, both referenced throughout “After Yang” for no reason whatsoever.

The less overtly racist aspects of the film retread ideas from “Blade Runner” four decades ago and, of course, Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” five decades ago. But instead of considering what makes someone human, “After Yang” explicitly asks what makes someone Asian. This is a very legitimate existential crisis for Asian Americans to work out on their own, but perhaps not in a public forum and most definitely not through Yellow Peril’s Greatest Hits.

“After Yang” ends with Mika bidding farewell to Yang in Mandarin, subtly suggesting/confessing that she may have been the one who broke Yang. But this speech isn’t subtitled, which is perhaps the only redeeming bit of this entire exercise. Some rando non-Mandarin speakers are bound to usurp (i.e. steal) this piece of information from this Mandarin-speaking reviewer and pass it off as their own without attribution, which sadly kinda validates the film’s premise.

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