Talent: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H Min, Haley Lu Richardson
Release Date: September 23
It’s the not too distant future. To keep their adopted Chinese daughter Mika in touch with her culture of origin, Jake (Farrell) and Krya (Turner-Smith) have purchased Yang, a second-hand robotic child (“a cultural techno”) whose main function is to educate Mika about her Chinese heritage. Yang’s such an integral part of the family that they even refer to him as a brother. So when he starts to malfunction and shuts down completely, much to the distress of Mika, Jake is desperate to find someone who can fix Yang. These efforts are complicated by the fact that, to save money, Jake bought Yang from a reseller as opposed to the original company.
Early on, we get a glimpse of the much more sly and impish film that could have been had director, Kogonada, allowed its tone to modulate. We see the family participating in a synchronised dance competition against other households who are eliminated if they can’t keep up. Yang goes haywire while dancing, and so this technological playfulness gives way to a film that wants to be earnest and worthy. The fun’s over in the wake of Yang’s demise and we’re here to ponder weighty, metaphysical matters with the drabbest human beings to ever draw breath. It feels like everyone has met a couple of minutes ago, like a bunch of introverts forced to talk during a fire drill. The film wouldn’t do anything so tawdry as have a scene of dramatic conflict. That’d be too hoary.
It’s not the actors’ fault. Farrell tries to inject some of his naturalistic affability into proceedings, but he’s much better when he’s allowed to emote and go for broke. His withheld character is a tea-obsessed stiff.
Since we meet the family right before Yang passes away, the film is all aftermath, rudderless and adrift, more lifeless than Yang (both before and after he stops working, incidentally) Many a ponderous flashback is interspersed throughout, involving the boring humanoid that we never got to know in the first place.
The lack of dynamism between the characters isn’t the only problem here. Tonally, this film aims to be low-key, but ends up being moribund. It’s supposed to have an understated gravitas, but in opting for solemnity, it just feels self-important and flavourless. This milquetoast humanism fairs much better with critics in The States – it’ll be interesting to see how the critical reception differs here.
What’s most frustrating is that the plot, beat for beat, is a really good idea. Jake finds a hidden camera inside Yang. A “techno” specialist tells Jake this camera is in fact Yang’s memory bank. After sifting through Yang’s more recent memories, Jake finds hidden ones from Yang’s time with his previous owners. It becomes clear that Yang was a conscious being capable of forming real connections. The revelation at the end is a powerful one, or a least, it would be, if it was given more time to breathe. But those that are involved are barely fleshed out. Yang’s previous incarnations are reduced to a flip-book montage of yet more characters we won’t get to know properly
With Yang’s humanity now verified by this evidence of subjectivity, the poignant score alerts us to the fact we are surely experiencing an overwhelming swell of emotion. No, you are not a robot for remaining unmoved.
The distribution company A24 have a very high strike rate. But this missed opportunity will have to be counted as one of their rare duds.
Words: Rory Kiberd