On this episode of the Filmmaker’s Toolkit podcast, director Kogonada discusses the cinematic components that drew him to “After Yang,” from how the function of human memory mirrors the process of filmmaking itself to the importance of telling a science fiction story with domestic stakes. All of that, plus the importance of having spaces tell their own stories, the differences between film and short stories, how the quality of light impacts the film, and a little bit of love for Robert Bresson.
Listen to the full episode below, or read on for excerpts from our interview.
Partial Transcript Below:
Kogonada on the cinematic appeals of “After Yang” as a story: There were a few ingredients that felt really interesting and [were] just where I was in life then, and still now it felt like I really wanted to explore them more. Certainly memory is one, and even the way we engage the life of others. There was something like knowing that I could expand that and understand even memory as a sense of time; a death that wasn’t really a death, as we know it. Really kind of having to contemplate non-existence, not through the lens of a human being, but obviously it relating to our own humanity felt really promising.
And then also the idea that this robot was a construct of Asian-ness. I could deeply relate to this idea that he wasn’t really Asian, but he existed as an Asian and wanted that as well. And maybe he was too, you know, maybe he was like just getting to the essence of what that even means. It was such a short, lovely, well-told story, but I could see the promise of it being the kind of film that I would want to watch. It had that sort of seed and promise of something that felt like it could be cinematic. And I also loved a sci-fi world that was domestic. The stakes weren’t about saving the world, but it was about getting through a day, and getting through weeks and months.
Kogonada on restructuring the short story for film: The mystery wasn’t any deeper than the fact that the father was recalling some real moments of Yang that made him more than an appliance. And it’s through his memories, not Yang’s at all. So the element in the film was to also explore Yang’s memories. And we have a couple of moments where we were accessing Jake’s memory as well, but the deeper layers of this idea that Yang himself had a deeper life and that went beyond his own life with the family. I think in the short story it’s all contained within the family itself. So I had this idea that he was used and that he had a previous life. And then the real revelation that he had a whole life.
Kogonada on the structure of the film: The structure of the film itself is the slow revelation, and for it to be sort of peeled away one at a time and, really, for us to maybe initially, like Jake, to think, you know, at first he thinks he knows — I mean, he’s very simple. And then his first sort of possibility is that maybe he is spying, maybe it’s nefarious. And then we get a hint of someone he sees in a memory that he doesn’t even know. The measuring out of how we get to know Yang was really the whole structure of the film, and what was going to take us to the end.
Kogonada on the formal identity of “After Yang”: I love all kinds of forms in cinema. You know, I’m a big fan of [René Clair] and I love how he uses the cinema and the echoes of cinema and this sort of temporal drift of cinema to really make us not only… he doesn’t just do it abstractly, but you feel memory and time in a different way.
So I did know that this story world would allow me to explore different forms of cinema. As the thing itself. I mean, so much of both variations of memory, both the ones that we feel in the human memory, where we feel the echoes and the repetition, and almost as if humans are auditioning the right take of a scene, because they’re trying to understand what was meaningful about something in the past. And then [there’s] Yang’s memory, which [is] just recordings and something you can revisit. But all of that is cinema itself, right? Cinema is simply the capturing of a time and the restructuring of it and the auditioning of it and trying to find what is most meaningful as a filmmaker.
Kogonada on the feeling of Yang’s memories: If you watch [Robert] Bresson, there’s a lot of distance and sometimes it can feel cold, but there’s so much emotion in the hands. It was so compelling and I’m certainly — I note that because people have always identified that in Besson, but yeah, I think that the memory interface, it did not feel so knowable and something that felt like a computer. But there was something that I wanted, just the entrance into that space to feel inherently moving, you know? That here was something that was the interface itself with the mystery and the discovery of what was memorable, the passage to those memories would also have a quality to them, a meaningfulness to them. And in the case of Yang, I think he was also having such a longing for a sense of time and place.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.