‘It’s hard to be human – we’re isolated’: Kogonada on his new film After Yang

° СAravaggio, Michelangelo, Cher … many of our best artists are known by mononyms. American director born in South Korea Kogonada might not be such a household name (yet), but he’s a name worth getting to know.

His latest film, After Yang, is about a father (Colin Farrell) who is desperate for answers when his daughter’s (Justin H Min) robot older brother unexpectedly shuts down. This daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) was adopted by American parents (Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) but is of Chinese descent. That’s where a robot big brother comes in: in this version of the future, you can purchase siblings that come fully equipped with a lifetime heritage of your choice. Despite this science fiction, After Yang is a delicate and tender work, born, its creator says, of a desire to reconnect with a sensibility he worried he had lost.

“I went through a cynical phase in my life and felt quite dismissive of any film that didn’t feed my cynicism,” says Kogonada. A personal tragedy (he would prefer to leave the exact nature of the tragedy unspoken) “began to challenge me again. My cynicism seemed embarrassing and trite in the face of actual loss and heartache. In doing so, it brought me back to what I loved about cinema and the cinematic experience. It allowed me to be more honest and open.” Soft-spoken and thoughtful, with a keen sense of intellectual curiosity, when we meet for an hour in a London hotel, Kogonada struggles to explain that he’s not convinced he’ll make any sense in his current jet-lagged state. But he’s actually more lucid and insightful than most people when they’ve had their full eight hours, something I try not to fault him for.

Memory Bank … Malea Emma Thiandrawijaya and Justin H Min in After Yang.
Memory Bank … Malea Emma Thiandrawijaya and Justin H Min in After Yang. Photo: Sky UK/Linda Kallerus

He seems preoccupied with the film’s role in a world that, as he says, “seems to be on fire.” This is a familiar dilemma for any artist whose work is not polemical. After Yang may not be explicitly about political turmoil, but watching it, there are clues that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic society. Not a Mad Max situation, but maybe 70 years after some unspoken cataclysm in a wiser and sadder civilization; one that has been hurt but not destroyed. “You want to make work that can withstand tragedy and political upheaval,” says Kogonada. “I don’t think that necessarily means doing work regarding tragedy and political upheaval, but something worthwhile in the face of it.”

This feels like an important distinction between pure escapism and art worth fighting for. “Well, maybe film is a form of escapism that Hitchcock believed in and mastered. Or maybe it’s a form of adjusting to the world or to humanity through comedy, romance, or drama. Whatever it is, you want it to be worth your time. Both for the process and the viewer.”

Kogonada’s daily life is shrouded in mystery: he is of the school that firmly believes that the work speaks for itself. Even his real name is unknown (he took his mononym from the Japanese screenwriter Kogo Nada). But we do know that he left South Korea for the US as a child, had a wife and children, and worked in academia before moving into film. He began as a video essayist whose visual works on Stanley Kubrick, neorealism and Wes Anderson caught the eye of producers. This eventually led to his first feature film opportunity, the low-budget drama Columbus. An instant hit at Sundance in 2017, this debut film explores the world of architecture and matters of the heart with equal insight.

Symmetrical... Haley Lou Richardson and John Cho in Columbus
Symmetrical… Haley Lou Richardson and John Cho in Columbus Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

From his work and musings, you might think that Kogonada is a simple intellectual, with his head in the clouds, pondering the purpose of life and art. In person, he is warm and observant, asking almost as many questions as I do. He seems drawn to the details. He notices the look of my notebook, for example. The page of the notebook that catches his eye is a web of writing sliding in all directions. “I like that,” he smiles. “It feels like my notebook. Diagonal writing everywhere. I have hundreds of notebooks.

Notebooks are, of course, a traditional way of doing something that newer technologies have updated. Where memory and personhood intersect with man-made technology is a major concern of After Yang. As a subject, it’s a well from which deep science fiction has drunk deeply, from Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

However, the key to the lasting impact of these films and the ones Kogonada makes is that the formal fireworks never completely overpower the emotional aspect. “As a director, it’s about trying to find that balance between formal and emotional integrity. I happened to be moved by form: the form of presence and absence. An empty room can break me. But it can also be cold and distant if that’s all. My desire is to be equally attentive to the world of emotions. When I walk into a theater, I want to be touched. I don’t want just an intellectual experience. I want to get in touch. I want to feel.”

Table talk … Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith in After Young.
Table talk … Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith in After Young. Photo: Sky UK/Linda Kallerus

The topic of technology and connectivity comes up repeatedly as we speak. Kogonada seems drawn back to him, irresistibly. “I recently read that there are more people in their 30s and 40s who are single than at any other time in history. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. Independence is commendable. But for all the technology that supposedly connects us to one another, there is a growing sense of disconnection. The struggle to truly connect with another person remains. And whatever that means, there is a longing for it.

This longing for connection is present in his work as a video essayist also, which often means showing (rather than telling viewers) how filmmakers get the effects they do. The “video essayist to narrative filmmaker” trajectory is perhaps one we can expect to see more of. After all, the French New Wave of the 1960s was composed almost entirely of radical film critics turned filmmakers (Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, the list goes on), while video essays are a form of film criticism, where some of today’s most forward-thinking ideas can be found.

But Kogonada’s idol is the respected Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Even his chosen name is a riff on the name of Ozu’s longtime collaborator, Kōgo Noda. Like his idol, who briefly flirted with teaching, Kogonada also works as an academic. Unlike his idol, who could make a film almost every year from 1927 until his last film in 1962, Kogonada is working in the 21st century, an era in which independent filmmakers find it difficult to come up with what their ancestors would recognize as a reliable career of consistent work. It’s relatively rare to come across indie filmmakers who have had any longevity without also working in commercial cinema.

In addition to his work as an academic and video essayist, Kogonada made forays into prestige television with Apple TV+’s Pachinko, a gripping and polished epic intertwining multiple timelines in the history of a Korean family. It’s tempting to draw grandiose conclusions about how Kogonada’s single-minded desire to be a filmmaker conflicts with his broader curiosity about the many forms creativity can take. But as always, underlying such possibilities is the cold hard fact of economics in a world where virtually no independent filmmaker is able to make films with anything like the freedom and consistency afforded to previous directors.

As Kogonada says, “The struggle is always that balance between what you think is important to you and trying to survive in a capitalist society, which is to say, making money. I don’t know if I can afford to be condescending. I have a family to support. I grew up working class. But I also struggle with the idea of ​​money as an incentive.”

Cost of living... Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim in Pachinko.
Cost of living… Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim in Pachinko. Photo: Juhan Noh/Apple TV+

Not that he’s about to abandon the themes that drew him to filmmaking: “In my first two films, I explored connection and disconnection in the context of family, which I imagine will always be of interest to me, but I’m Impatient to explore this in the context of romantic possibilities. And as for comedy, I’ve always been a fan of its various forms. Maybe fan isn’t the right word. It is a need, a comfort, a pleasure. When I experience it, I feel great gratitude. Maybe fan is the right word. I would like to make more room for the comedy. It is such a deeply human part of us. You know, to laugh is to bond.

It would be interesting to see what a horror, comedy, musical or romance might look like filtered through the lens of Kogonada’s sensibility. Maybe an action movie would even be appropriate? “Beyond romance and comedy, my first love was wuxia movies. They are a martial form of dance and drama that mesmerizes me. I would like to find or create a project that includes wuxia elements. With all that said, I’m still very committed to a certain kind of film and filmmaking.”

After all, he says, whether you’re a director or not, “it’s definitely hard to be human. We are isolated in our own subjectivity. We often feel like no one really understands us. We long for a real relationship. We’re all just trying to get through the day with a sense of significance. This is what I am also trying to understand through my own engagement with cinema and filmmaking.

After Yang is in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema now.

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