After Yang and Grieving in the Digital Age

After Yang and Grieving in the Digital Age

There is a unique, modern pain that comes with grieving today: loss comes with a barrage of videos, images and audio that give us the illusion of the dead still living and breathing. Kogonada finds a gentle, earnest way to understand this with After Yang – Kayla McCulloch explores just how carefully it understands such pain in our online world.

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first developed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, there’s no way she could have imagined the kind of changes this cycle would go through more than 50 years later. With the advent of personal computers, cell phones, social media and the internet, Kübler-Ross’s thoughts on denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventual acceptance felt after a personal loss face one major challenge today: What if the dead aren’t ever really gone in the digital age? What if the ones who have passed continue to live on through the photos, the videos, the audio, and the conversations stored behind our screens?

The avoidance so characteristic of the denial stage is difficult when Facebook reminds you of a happy memory with the deceased years ago. Feelings of anger are only exacerbated when you go to call or text the person and realise they’re no longer around to answer. The “what ifs” that come with the bargaining stage feel sharper as you stare at the last photo you took of them. The overwhelming feelings of depression come on stronger when a calendar reminder pops up on a birthday or anniversary. True acceptance is harder to reach when you can still see and hear them in videos on their social media profile.

The crushing, disruptive nature of grief has been explored countless times on film, occasionally to great effect – 2016’s Manchester by the Sea and now Drive My Car being two excellent recent examples – but none are as pertinent, or ultra-modern, as Kogonada’s second feature After Yang. While the aforementioned films skilfully and poignantly depict loss on Kübler-Ross’s terms, Kogonada’s film carves its own path toward a future definition of grief – one that not only accounts for technological advances, but also welcomes them into the fold. 

In the present-day of After Yang – an indeterminate but proximate hereafter from 2022’s standpoint – many working parents rely on android companions to help care for their children. Marketed as “Second Siblings'' but scientifically referred to as technosapiens, these humanistic robots cover the bases that mums and dads can’t be bothered with during their busy schedules: mathematics, language, amity, the arts… the list goes on and the lines between parent, sibling, and friend star to blur, but one thing is clear: technosapiens are an essential, irreplaceable part of the household. But not everyone sees it this way.

For Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), the importance of Yang (Justin H. Min), their daughter Mika’s (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) Second Sibling, isn’t fully realised until he suddenly collapses and goes dark one evening. Mika is devastated, and Kyra hates to see her daughter hurting, but Jake really doesn’t seem too torn up about Yang’s breakdown or Mika’s despair. It almost seems as futile as crying over a broken fridge or a faulty toaster. In Jake’s eyes, Yang was nothing more than a tool. Still, because of his wife’s sympathy and his daughter’s sorrow, he makes an effort to bring Yang back.

As he carts Yang around their futuristic unnamed American metropolis in search of someone who can repair what has unknowingly become outdated tech, Jake begins to learn that his family’s technosapien differs from the rest. While some fear that Second Siblings may be spyware-in-disguise, secretly recording everyone’s private lives and sending it back to Silicon Valley for studying, Yang was actually compiling a data bank full of filmed memories. His core malfunction may prove irreparable, but his cache of videos can still be viewed. 

Using tech that looks like a sleeker, lighter, more fashionable VR headset, Jake immerses himself in Yang’s sprawling web of recorded memories. The interface resembles a golden galaxy speckled with solar systems consisting of stored slices of life. Jake drifts in and out of the most profoundly mundane footage, presented in gorgeous 1.85:1 widescreen: Yang and Mika doing a lesson. The family gathering for a photo opp. The wind blowing through the trees. Jake preparing a cup of tea. The sun’s rays muted by rainclouds as a rainbow stretches across the sky. A mystery woman (Haley Lu Richardson) beckoning Yang toward her at the entrance to a forest. Jake’s experience is so much more powerful than just flipping through a photo album or reading old letters, in the way grief is typically depicted on-screen – this experience is mesmerising, it’s visceral, it’s revealing, it’s alive.

What Jake is experiencing goes beyond denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Obviously, Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief did not account for the impact this fictional technology would have on the future of the grieving process for the characters of After Yang. Why would it? After all, none of it is extant. There are no technosapiens, no androids, and no memory banks in our modern lives, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t truth to what Kogonda has captured, nor does it suggest that Kübler-Ross’s ideas don’t apply, even if Jake’s emotions don’t fit within any single one of their parameters. As a matter of fact, they fit within all five simultaneously. 

The future of grief in the digital age is a lightspeed cycle constantly in motion, constantly repeating, constantly spinning at such a high velocity that everything is felt all at once all the time. At our fingertips, we have technology allowing us to hop from a lighthearted video of our dearly beloved from years prior to a painful text thread from their final days to a voicemail they left just a couple of months before their untimely passing. We can look through their social media profiles, their emails, their camera roll, their notes app – an endless stream of signs of life and a dizzying whirlwind of emotions that obfuscate the slow, procedural grief of the past. 

The technology used in After Yang might not be in our hands anytime soon, but this idea of grieving at an increased pace in the digital age is poignant: through the viewing of Yang’s memories, Jake feels a coalescence of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. His confusion, his frustration, his pursuit of meaning, his newfound heartache, and his series of realisations swirling around in his mind are all direct results of the incorporation of technology into the grieving process. These modern advances allow Jake to finally see Yang for what he truly was and what he’s truly lost: a real member of the family.

Only Kogonada, whose gentle, distinctive modernist voice feels like a warm blast of clean air during such an intolerably hazy and nostalgic time for American filmmaking, could have been capable of updating the grief cycle for the modern day and beyond. Grief just isn’t the same in this technological epoch. While On Death and Dying will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of how we talk about bereavement, After Yang is hopefully the first of many works to work toward a better, more accurate future canon for our hyper-accelerated grief.

After Yang is out in the US now and will reach the UK later this year.

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