Saying Goodbye

After Yang (2021)

After Yang (2021) | Art by Tom Ralston
illustration by Tom Ralston

Grief is a form of recovery, the kind that takes forever to complete.


Kogonada’s After Yang presents the unexpected loss of a family member in soft science fiction, adapted from Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” Film and short story share the same bones: when Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopted their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) from China, they also purchased a humanoid robot (a “techno-sapiens”) named Yang (Justin H. Min) to help keep Mika in touch with her roots. Mika and Yang speak Mandarin with each other; Yang dispenses what the family refers to as “Chinese fun facts,” little snippets of history and cultural knowledge that her parents aren’t equipped to give her.

Yang is a pillar of stability for the little family. Kyra’s an architect, Jake runs a tea shop, and both feel guilty about how busy their days have become, and how much they rely on Yang not just to keep Mika in touch with her home culture, but also raise their daughter. They talk about becoming more involved in her life once they’ve achieved the next set of goals in sight: just one more presentation for Kyra, just a few more hours at the tea shop for Jake. They can feel themselves drifting away, both from their daughter and from each other, by inches. It’s not that they don’t love their family, it’s just that there are more pressing affairs to attend to.

Then Yang breaks.


My grandfather passed away in December 2021. I hadn’t seen either him or my grandmother—his wife—since March 2020, hours before shelter-in-place orders were issued and we all hunkered down for what we’d hoped would be a few strange weeks at most. We lived states apart from each other, far enough away that travel was unsafe. We’d talk on the phone occasionally, the same way we had before the pandemic: life updates, the weather, the occasional comfortable silence. I was relieved when my grandparents received the vaccine, then impatient as I waited to become eligible myself. Spring 2021 felt like a glorious stretch after a long and uncomfortable hibernation, and I allowed myself to finally make plans again, to feel hopeful for the future. I made arrangements to visit their side of the family for Christmas, and began counting down the weeks and days until we could see each other in person. 

I lost my grandfather just a few weeks before our planned visit. When I found out, I felt as though gravity had dropped out from under me. The family running joke was that he was so healthy he’d outlive us all; I’d repeated the line myself so many times that I half believed it. Family Christmas had a gigantic hole punched in the middle—an unexpected void we knew we’d never be able to fill.

I saw my grandmother over the holiday, but I never really got to say goodbye to her, either. She followed my grandfather after a lingering illness a few months later. It was like a long, slow conversation over the phone had been interrupted, and I couldn’t call either of them back. The world had suddenly gone strange.


Yang shuts down at the same time that the opening credits do; we don’t get to spend much time with his family before they’re knocked off their collective axis by his loss. Most of what we know of Yang is gathered from memories of his time with his family, a structural choice that emphasizes the hole his sudden absence leaves behind. They spend the rest of the film picking themselves up after the shock, pulling themselves back together into a wounded whole. The days after his breakdown are a renegotiation of Mika’s care: will she return to school, and when; who’s responsible for ensuring she’s fed and safe and put to bed on time. Those crucial few days after Yang’s shutdown, the ones in which everyone is still getting used to the idea that he might never come back, are also a renegotiation of the family unit. Jake scrambles to find a way to fix Yang, taking him from shop to shop in the hopes that some technician can manage to coax life back into the robot’s broken core. Kyra’s more pragmatic. If they can’t fix Yang, she says, they shouldn’t replace him, either. Jake’s still bargaining by the time Kyra reaches acceptance.

Neither parent cries when they mourn Yang. They want to present a united front to Mika, who can’t understand why her big brother is suddenly gone and won’t be coming back. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb frames their world with the same steady hand in a wide, stable aspect ratio, his signature carefully composed shots showcasing the architecture within the family’s house. Kogonada, like Ozu before him, is conscious of the frameworks that prop up family life—the unspoken rules that order their days, and the barriers that no party is willing to talk about, let alone breach. When Jake and Kyra attempt to wrangle their mornings back into a sense of order without Yang, the two do so in the family’s open-plan kitchen. Kogonada directs the scene with minimal dialogue; Loeb shoots it from a corridor so that the walls and windows draw thick lines between each member of the family. They’ll talk around their collective grief, allowing their individual sorrow to scab over until it becomes a part of the architecture of the human heart.

It would be easy to demonstrate estrangement through divided attention; the common shorthand for distraction is a character absorbed in a book, or a device with a glowing screen, their face pointed away from everyone else’s. Kogonada does away with almost all technology in After Yang. There are no screens of any kind—when Jake and Kyra communicate with each other long-distance, the camera takes the place of the devices they’re using, so that Farrell and Turner-Smith deliver their lines directly to the fourth wall, their faces framed by a square aspect ratio, boxier than the wide frame used for most other scenes. The two look directly into each other’s eyes, but we can’t see the eye contact. Kogonada separates the couple over time and distance—and brings us as invested observers into the family’s conflict, understated and small as it is—by putting us in Jake and Kyra’s respective places. We’re unseen observers in the conversation, and we’re afforded a clarity that Jake and Kyra can’t have, because we occupy both their spaces simultaneously. We can see the broken pieces more clearly than they can.


I was close with my grandparents. When I first moved to the Midwest, I lived with them for a summer, in the house my father grew up in. I was reeling over the loss of a long relationship, and over the shock of transplanting myself from a corner of the country I’d expected to live in for the rest of my life. The time at my grandparents’ house was healing. I took up residence on the couch in their TV room, watching baseball with my grandfather and detective shows with my grandmother. I chased fireflies in their backyard, sheltered in their basement during a tornado warning, biked to the library a mile or so away from their house. I baffled my grandmother by staying up late reading night after night; she was an early riser. She took me to estate sales to help me find pots and pans for my new life in Chicago, and she even found me a trench coat that fit me perfectly for five dollars. I still wear the coat, years later. We watched the house wrens raise their babies in a birdhouse just outside the kitchen window. My grandfather taught me how to use the riding mower, and how to cook steaks over a charcoal grill. We’d do yard work on Saturdays before cracking open beers together on the back patio. The three of us grew from casual familiarity into an easy coexistence.

I don’t have any pictures of my grandparents from that summer. What I do have are the details—the birdhouse outside the kitchen window, the warm bricks from the patio underfoot, the price tag stickers from the garage sales we haunted—that live in my memory. I wish I’d been more intentional about the images I carried with me when I moved out. Human memory is fleeting; mine from that summer have faded. The details tumble out of order. I can feel them shifting around in my head even as I remember them.


Much of Jake and Kyra’s grieving process is taken up in the act of remembrance. Kogonada cuts their memories so that each successive cut overlaps with its predecessor, jumping backwards in time to cover a different angle of the same action. The lines are the same, but the deliveries are different, with variations in tone and speed. Jake recounts a documentary about tea; Kyra remembers a conversation about butterflies and rebirth. Both memories are of conversations with Yang that had seemed ordinary at the time; it’s the remembrance after Yang’s shutdown that makes the conversations take on new meaning. That new meaning comes with the fraught nature of memory. Jake and Kyra know what was said, but they can’t remember it exactly. Their memories are in the same wide aspect ratio as the rest of the film, but in these scenes Kogonada trades his signature carefully-composed static shots for a handheld camera and intimate angles. Jake and Kyra’s memories are literally shaky. They’re fragile, malleable, overlapping and changing with each remembrance. These memories are painful at first, a shock to the system to remember that Yang was once alive.

When Jake learns that Yang had a memory core, it’s another shock. Yang had the ability to record snippets of memories, just a few seconds at a time—something suspected by conspiracy theorists, but never confirmed, because it’s illegal to crack open techno-sapiens. The film doesn’t spend much time on this detail; it’s analogous to the fine print on a smart device today, with companies voiding warranties on phones should their proprietary technology be breached. The script raises the potential for privacy violation through a few lines of dialogue, just enough to let the issue breathe a little, and to lend a level of depth to a world where human beings can purchase humanoid robots to round out their family units. Kogonada spends more time on the actual memories that Yang recorded: little snapshots of his life, proof that he’d been sentient, a being apart from his make and programming.

Each of those recorded memories informs Yang’s character, as seen through his own eyes and no one else’s. Rain on the leaves of a tree. A silhouette of Yang wearing his favorite band’s t-shirt, pink letters curling across his chest to spell a name over his heart. Mika walking circles around a tree, glancing up to wave back at Yang in response to his greeting of “nĭ hăo, mèi mei.”1 Tea leaves swirling as they steep in a glass jar. Yang’s memories are in a larger aspect ratio than most of the rest of the film (1.85:1, in contrast with the nearly square 1.33:1 of Jake and Kyra’s video calls, or the 2.35:1 of the rest of the film). Yang’s memories are locked off and level, evidence of a steady gaze, but only a few seconds each. When they’re repeated, they play exactly the same way every time—the nearly-objective truth of electronic memory, made personal by the being who chose to remember those moments precisely.

Along with Yang’s memories come mysteries. Unbeknownst to his family, Yang had a friend, a life outside the house. They’d bought him secondhand—“certified refurbished”—but had known nothing about his life before he came to live with them. The interface holding Yang’s memories of his time with Jake, Kyra, and Mika displays those memories as a rigid constellation of little golden lights, arranged over a dark forest of stately trees. The memories of his life before their family is a rich galaxy, a full life that had been previously hidden. For Jake and Kyra, exploring Yang’s memories is like the discovery of boxes of photographs in the attic after a funeral.


One of the most bittersweet parts of my own grieving process was hearing stories about my grandparents after they’d gone. I knew some of them, remembered others as I was being told their stories, learned some new details about their lives that I hadn’t known before. I heard stories about the pharmacy my grandfather owned, and the pranks he and his colleagues would pull on each other (apparently it was the height of comedy to call in a complicated order to another pharmacist). I learned about the time Grandpa was held up at gunpoint at his pharmacy. When he came home, he took a shot of whiskey—something my family remembered as unusual, both because he didn’t drink hard liquor and because his hands shook when he poured it. I heard stories about the farm my grandma grew up on, how she’d taken the family shotgun out to hunt gophers in the fields before she was a teenager, how she’d been athletic. I saw photos of my grandfather playing baseball and football, of my grandma as a young woman holding a friend of hers in her arms: proof of life and vitality that I’d been aware of before, but hadn’t fully processed until after they were gone.


As the film progresses, the cinematography grows looser: a hand unclenching from a fist, a family learning to breathe together again after collective loss. That sense of loss never truly goes away, but it does become easier to talk about, and to live with. Remembrance is a vital part of the healing process. Forget, and you’ve sealed off that person completely, but remember, and some piece of them can live inside and around you.

Jake and Kyra have the opportunity to donate Yang—and his memories—to a museum of science. They choose not to let the museum display his body, but they choose to share his memories, to let the museum show who Yang was to the rest of the world. “His existence mattered, and not just to us,” Jake says to Kyra. Yang loved them, and he loved Mika, but he loved other people throughout his lifetime, too. To hide away all evidence of his existence would be to erase and dishonor his memory, and the memories of the other people he’d loved, and the other lives he’d been a part of.

My grandparents’ story has pieces that are not mine to tell. They were private people. I honor their memory by holding those pieces in trust for them, even after they’re gone. Still, it isn’t right for me to hide my grandparents away from the world completely. I couldn’t if I tried, anyway. The dishes in my cupboards were a gift from my grandmother. I wear the five-dollar trench coat she found for me at the estate sale. I’ve inherited my laugh from my grandfather. Remembering my grandparents still hurts, and I suspect the ache is here to stay. It’s a wound I can’t recover from. But acknowledging the ache makes it easier to carry, because I can share the pain of their loss and the joy of knowing them. They did so much and lived so much and loved so much, and I’m lucky to have been able to know them, if just for a little while. 

If I can keep their memory alive, I won’t ever really need to say goodbye.

  1. “Hello, little sister”