Genre: Science fiction drama (U.S.)
Stars: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja.
Writer and Director: South Korean/U.S. filmmaker Kogonada
(based on a short story by Alexander Weinstein)
Length: 96 minutes
Premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2021 and then Sundance Film Festival January 21, 2022 where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize.
The official Showtime synopsis reads: ‘In a society where robots function as live-in babysitters, a young girl’s beloved machine-companion suddenly becomes unresponsive. As her father searches for a way to repair it, however, he finds that his relationships with his wife and daughter are in need of repair as well.’
The film follows the story of Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) navigating the death of an android named Yang (Justin H. Min). Yang had been selected from a company called ‘Second Sibling’ as a cultural technosapien/human-like babysitter for their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) in order to teach her Mandarin and cultural facts that will connect her to her Chinese cultural heritage (Yang had come pre-programmed with Chinese cultural knowledge and language). He is friendly and caring. Mika sees Yang as her older brother, taking care of everyday needs, and comforting her when bullies pick on her at school. Yang also endears himself to Jake and Kyra who see him as an adopted son, the same as Mika is their adopted daughter. Yang malfunctions as a result of unexpected complications in his core during a fun family dance-off competition. Jake is determined to find a way to repair him and in the process embarks on a spiritual journey, facing existential questions about what it means to be truly human.
The film explores love, loss and grief, connection, identity and some of the ‘big questions’ about ‘life, the universe and everything’.
General questions for discussion
Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie:
* What stood out as the main points/highlights in the documentary?
* What themes are explored?
* What assumptions are embedded in the story?
* What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
* Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience or the experience of others?
* Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind?
* Where is God present in the story? Where does God seem absent? What Christian themes speak into the context of this narrative?
It is interesting to contrast Yang’s compassionate, caring nature with that of another character in the film – a racist conspiracy theorist who denigrates others. Yang offers thoughtful reflections on what it means to be human – even though he is clearly not human himself. Can a machine ever truly embody human consciousness and emotion? Can a machine show humanity? The director (Kogonada) reflects: “Why do we always imagine that an artificial being would want to be human? Isn’t being a human hard? Because you don’t understand why we even came into existence.”
Is ‘being human’ simply about human DNA? Is about the kind of relationships humans share? Is being human about being created in the image of God?
=> What do you understand that being ‘truly human’ means?
Busyness and distance
While the relationship between adopted android and adopted daughter is strong, it also unintentionally creates a situation where the parents grow distant from the day to day care of their daughter. In Yang’s absence, Jake and Kyra awaken again to Mika’s presence again. Jake is also confronted by his absence in his own life. Director Kogonada says, “It’s both a grieving for Yang, but also a grieving for time lost. Maybe all grieving is about lost time.”
In the last decades, the ‘stay at home’ parent – who would be responsible for the care of the children at home and be there after school etc – has given way to where both parents are often working (or studying or….). It’s one way the dynamics of family relationships have changed. It’s arguably more difficult to preserve the things that are essential and critical for family life and nurture of children. Parents may be tired and pre-occupied, and children are often busy with a myriad of activities and/or occupied on ‘the screen’.
=> What is loss, and what is gain? Is all grieving really about lost time?
=> What if families had an android to look after the day to day care of children. Would it diminish or enhance family life? Discuss.
(Emily Zemler, The Observer): After Yang is not flashy or dramatic, and very little actually happens. But isn’t that truer to how we live? On an average day, the real action takes place within us; the drama occurs in our own minds.
The director (Kogonada) reflects: “When I was in third grade, I suddenly just thought, I haven’t always been here – what did it feel like before I was born? A terrifying wave washed over me with the realization that “whatever that is, I will have that again.”
‘The crisis of being’, he says, is knowing that ‘once you’re turned on, then you know that you can be turned off. What does it mean for that moment that you are, and what does it mean when you’re no longer? If there’s anything that has haunted me even to this day, it is absence.”
In a flashback scene, Yang tells his adoptive mother Kyra about a quote from the philosopher Lao-tzu:“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” Director Kogonada says, “I don’t know if I need the comfort of something existing afterwards. Whatever nothing or absence may be, there’s something that I have far less fear about, and I can almost feel comfort in it. Maybe that nothing is actually the seeds of something else. Maybe it’s something, nothing, something again.”
=> explore some of the film’s existential questions (eg what happens after we die?, before-life, after-life, non-existence etc), in conversation with insights and understandings from the biblical narrative.
As Jake tries to get Yang fixed, he discovers that Yang was equipped with a memory box, able to capture a few seconds from each day that he was alive. Jake is able to relive past moments as well as ones that are new to him.
Memory, as we all know, can be fickle and fluid. What we remember with certainty and clarity may slowly change over time. In contrast, Yang’s memories are crystal clear and unchanging, preserved into perpetuity.
=> A thoughtful discussion on memory (and loss of memory and gaps in memory) could be pursued.
The film explores identity in a number of ways. For instance, Mika questions whether she’s truly part of the family, given she is an adopted child. Yang offers her wisdom and comfort by talking about a grove of trees with grafted branches. At first, the branch will look as if it’s just “taped on” but over time the grafted-in branch becomes one with the tree. So even though Mika comes from a different family biologically, she is a true part of her adopted family. (Could relate this to Romans 11:11-24).
=> What ‘identity’ questions are explored in the movie?
Existential angst amidst calm and tranquillity
The film takes place in a futuristic world that doesn’t separate humans from nature, but rather, fuses the two together. This is especially emphasized through the film’s cinematography, which uses vivid colors and beautiful scenery, with an emphasis on plants and the natural world, to bring the surroundings around Jake and his family to life. As a result, the world that the characters occupy, as well as the dialogues they have with one another, consistently feel serene and calming, a tranquil escape that is a feast for the eyes as much as it is for the mind. (Source: Under the Radar)
=> Discuss how you create spaces and places of calm and tranquillity for yourself as you deal with life in all its complexity (or what gets in the way of creating those spaces).
(c) Movie Discussion Resource prepared by Sandy Boyce, April 2022. Permission to download and use, but please acknowledge author and source.