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With his Sci-Fi android, a filmmaker considers what it means to be alive
The filmmaker and video essayist Kogonada in Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2022. His new film is the futuristic A.I. drama “After Yang.” Tracy Nguyen/The New York Times.

by Brandon Yu



NEW YORK, NY.- Kogonada distinctly remembers the first time the specter of nonexistence dawned upon him. He was alone in his room, and it was a weekend.

“I suddenly just thought, I haven’t always been here — what did it feel like before I was born?” the filmmaker recalled recently at a park in the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles. A terrifying wave washed over him with the realization that “whatever that is, I will have that again.” Kogonada ran into his father’s room, teary-eyed. He was, he estimated, in third grade.

That existential confrontation is in some ways at the root of “After Yang,” the melancholic, soulful sophomore feature from the sometimes cryptic filmmaker. The movie, adapted from a short story by Alexander Weinstein, follows a family in a sci-fi future as they grapple with the strangely affecting loss of their humanlike robot, Yang (Justin H. Min), who acts as a “second sibling” and suddenly shuts off one day.

“Once you’re turned on, then you know that you can be turned off — that’s just the crisis of being,” Kogonada said. “What does it mean for that moment that you are, and what does it mean when you’re no longer?” Looking over a picturesque green valley dotted with trees, Kogonada noted, “If there’s anything that has haunted me even to this day, it is absence.”

This kind of questioning has been the through line to a life whose contours he is reluctant to fill in. His very name, Kogonada, is a pseudonym cribbed from screenwriter Kogo Noda, who frequently collaborated with one of Kogonada’s greatest inspirations, director and screenwriter Yasujiro Ozu. He adopted the name when he started making video essays in the mid-2010s analyzing the form of cinema. Around that time, he had abandoned a Ph.D. on Ozu and felt dissatisfied with the documentaries and branded content he was making while living in Nashville, Tennessee. His video essays, championed among cinephiles, drew one Hollywood connection that allowed him to pass along the script for what became his debut feature, “Columbus.”

Beyond that arc and a basic outline of his life — emigrating with his family from South Korea as a child, growing up in Indiana and Chicago, and now living in Los Angeles with his wife and two children — Kogonada politely edged around details. His reticence is not an output of some manufactured mystique — most of his biography is rather boring, he said — but instead a mixture of neuroses about privacy, the freeing feeling of creating under a constructed identity and the fear of being flattened by a neat definition of who he is.

Kogonada has always found his own identity to be elusive, and he is wary of the idea of full understanding. It’s an uneasiness that is perhaps unsurprising coming from someone who has made a habit of interrogating things he ultimately realized are ineffable. To spend a day with him is to trod softly and curiously down philosophical rabbit holes: the meaning of place, the history of the number zero, what it means exactly to be Asian, what comes after death.

“He’s just an extremely humbly curious human being,” said actress Haley Lu Richardson, who stars in both “After Yang” and “Columbus.” (She laughed almost maniacally at the question of whether she might know his actual name, while revealing nothing.) “There’s also no ego to him.” Indeed, the filmmaker is often worried about sounding too elliptical or guru-like as he muses on abstract questions.

“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,” said actor Colin Farrell, who stars as Jake, the protagonist in “After Yang.” He added, “In 45 years of being on this planet, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone who is more thoughtful and kinder and has more depth.”




As a conduit for Kogonada’s searching nature, “After Yang” is a sci-fi film in which, unlike others with a similar AI-centered premise, “the existential crisis is the human being,” the filmmaker noted.

“Why do we always imagine that an artificial being would want to be human?” Kogonada said, referring to a typical sci-fi trope. “Isn’t being a human hard? Because you don’t understand why we even came into existence.”

The film is intensely personal in how it contends with Kogonada’s lifelong questions around nonexistence, and, in exploring Yang’s unique kind of death, the film prods conversely at what it means to be alive. As Jake tries to get Yang fixed, he uncovers a memory bank storing blip-like snapshots of life that Yang found worth remembering: his family laughing, the rain-soaked forest ground, the peel of a tangerine, sunlight falling on a wall.

“We have a lot of language for this crisis that we are having right now where more people are bored than ever, and more people are feeling depressed and meaningless than ever,” Kogonada said. Yet “we have so much more access to things that feel fun and distracting.” He brought up a brief history of the word “boredom,” and how it is now used to evade the silence and weight of feeling existence, “so that we don’t have to confront the very feeling that might be everything to us,” he said. “If we could stay in it and see it, maybe this thing that we see everyday, which is sun coming and casting a shadow, can provide something for us.”

Kogonada doubled back, laughing at himself — he’s not claiming this is necessarily the key to life. But, instead of the concrete answers to enlightenment he yearned for in his younger days, searching in religion and in cinema, he’s come to gravitate more toward finding meaning and mystery in everyday life, in experience that is inclusive and accessible to everyone.

In “After Yang,” Yang’s mundane memories prompt Jake to confront his absence in his own life. “It’s both a grieving for Yang but also a grieving for time lost,” Kogonada said, adding, “maybe all grieving is about lost time.”

Staring out across a pond shimmering in the afternoon sun, Kogonada said he would have to make peace with the increased attention that would inevitably come with this film, which, along with the four episodes he directed of the upcoming Apple TV+ series “Pachinko,” might be seen as an establishing moment for him as an auteur. Ironically, this period as an artist under an alias is the closest he has ever felt to being himself.

As for that primal fear of absence, Kogonada is more secure than ever. In a flashback scene, Yang tells his mother, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), about a quote from philosopher Laotzu. “What the caterpillar calls the end,” he recites, “the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”

“I don’t know if I need the comfort of something existing afterwards,” Kogonada said, echoing a line that Yang says in the scene. “Whatever nothing or absence may be, there’s something that I have far less fear about, and I can almost feel comfort in it.” He thought again. “Maybe that nothing is actually the seeds of something else. Maybe it’s something, nothing, something again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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