JIFF opening film 'After Yang' brings sensitive topics to light

A family photo taken before Yang malfunctions, in the 23rd Jeonju International Film Festival's opening film "After Yang." From left is Jake (portrayed by Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Yang (Justin H.

JEONJU — The 23rd Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) opened on Thursday with the usual hustle and bustle of crowds, reminiscent of times before Covid-19 was even a thing, with all theater seats open to view the 217 films invited from 56 countries.

“We were determined to recover the festivity of JIFF this year, but there were a lot of variables that came about as the Omicron wave took its toll,” director Lee Joon-dong said at the press event for the opening film “After Yang” on Thursday. “Up until two weeks prior to the beginning of the festival, we were in a tug-of-war against the governmental officials as to how many people we can let in a movie theater. We initially only opened up 70 percent of our seats, but after the social distancing measures were lifted, we opened up all our seats. We believed we could consider the festival a success even if only 50 percent of the seats could be filled, but I anticipate it will be better than that.”

This 23rd festival is the last year for the Jeonju International Film Festival's opening ceremony to take place at Jeonju Dome, as the city will begin the construction of the Jeonju Independent Film House at the current site of the dome. [JOONGANG IL

“After Yang” opens the 10-day festival: Directed by Kogonada, the filmmaker behind Apple TV+’s “Pachinko” (2022) and his debut feature film “Columbus” (2017), the sci-fi film is set in a near future where androids can become surrogate siblings in a family. Asian-featured android Yang is a guardian, best friend and reliable older brother to Mika, who is heavily dependent on him. Mica is an adopted Chinese daughter to Jake and Kyra, who brought Yang into their family to connect Mica with her Chinese roots. Then one day Yang suddenly stops working, and as Jake tries to find ways to repair him, he discovers that Yang is different from other androids because he can store memories. Accessing Yang’s memory bank reveals things about him unbeknownst to the family.

The film had its world premiere at the 74th Cannes Film Festival last year.

Distributed by A24, the American film distributor behind Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (2020), the film is adapted from the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” written by Alexander Weinstein. The film stars Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min and Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja. Korean-American actor Justin H. Min plays the role of android Yang.

Justin H. Min, who portrays Yang in the festival's opening film "After Yang," walks on the red carpet of the opening ceremony at Jeonju Dome on Thursday evening. [JIFF]

“It’s such a special film, especially to share in the light of the pandemic and Covid-19,” Justin H. Min, who visited Jeonju for the festival, said in English after the press screening. “I think one of the themes of the movie is to slow down and to look at these small moments of life that we often pass by and don’t really think about, and as you see through Yang’s memories, you can see just some shadows on a wall, leaves falling from a tree […] These are the small moments you often forget about, and the pandemic has reminded us to slow down and to really savor each of these things we do in life, so I don’t think it could be more timely that the movie could be shared in this moment in time.”

One of the first questions, Min said, that he asked Kogonada is how to set the tone of an android who can connect to his human family members.

“It was the most important question to me — how robot-like is this android and how human is this android, and he never gave me an answer,” Min said. “It was very frustrating because I really didn’t know what to do and I realize now he did that very purposefully […] So we would do different takes in different ways to see what felt right […] For me, it was not about trying to play him so robotic or so humane. It was about finding his relationship with each of the characters.”

As Yang grapples with his identity, the actor said he had also struggled with his ethnicity in Western society.

“In the same way that Yang struggles with his Asian identity, it’s something I struggle with all the time,” he said. “There’s this beautiful scene with Yang and Jake about tea, and [Yang] says, ‘I wish tea meant something more to me than just facts about tea. I wish it was real and I had memories of tea.’ And that’s how I feel everyday in the U.S. Because I look Korean, I know a lot about Korea because my parents are Korean, I speak a little bit of Korean, I eat Korean food — but sometimes I don’t feel it’s real because I don’t have real memories of growing up in Korea.

“There’s something about Asian Americans where we have to explain who we are to the people around us who are not Asian, in Western society. I think that difference is a really important theme of the movie because it’s as if we have to explain our existence for being Asian to these people who don’t fully understand who we are and where we came from.”

In "After Yang," Mika becomes reliant on her android brother Yang, who is always there for her when she needs him. [JIFF]

However, Min does not believe that the android wanted to become human.

“I always thought of Yang as someone who enjoyed being a robot, which I think is why, for me, it was a very interesting story,” he said. “So many movies and TV shows we watch about robots — the whole point is them wanting to become human, but there’s something about Yang that he feels like he has joy being the dutiful robot family member. I think maybe the humanity that comes forth in each of his relationships, I don’t think it’s because he wants to be human. I think that’s more just because he enjoys being whoever he needs to be for each of his family members.”

The film also explores the various forms a family can take, including Jake’s family, with a multi-cultural and ethnic background. Min believes that the film managed to gracefully bring forth socially sensitive issues for the audience to chew on.

“Race is such a nuanced, complex issue, especially in the last couple of years,” he said. “Especially in America, we’ve had things like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, and it is an ongoing conversation about what race means and its consequences and the histories that are involved in these things, and I think the thing this movie does is it brings those kinds of questions to light, but it doesn’t do it in a cynical or negative way — it does it through the lens of this family. I think the reason why we haven't been able to have conversations about race in a healthy way sometimes is because it’s not through the lens of hope and it’s not through the lens of love. I think that’s why the film is able to talk about these things but still do it hopefully in an uplifting way.”

The 23rd JIFF runs until May 7.