Video essayist turned writer-director-editor Kogonada and writer-director-producer Joanna Hogg are at the helm of two of Cannes 2021’s most anticipated features. The former‘s architecturally and visually stunning Columbus took the cinephile world by storm in 2017. So, it’s only natural that his second film, After Yang, has a high bar to clear. The follow-up is about a racially diverse family in the future. When their “techno-sapien” helper suddenly, mysteriously malfunctions, they begin a meditative investigation of his AI memories. As for Hogg, her latest is The Souvenir Part II, the awaited follow-up to, well, you know.
In part one, released in 2019, we found Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) studying to become a director, embroiled in a heroin-trodden relationship characterized by anxiety and duplicity. Like many other viewers, I finished The Souvenir wanting more out of Julie’s development as a filmmaker. But I was narrow-sighted, unaware of Hogg’s scope. In The Souvenir Part II, Julie looks her trauma in the eye by deigning to adapt the events of part one into her first feature.
In other words, we now watch Julie make The Souvenir, albeit a different version. But it’s the devastating context of having witnessed what happened in part one that allows us to better understand Julie’s directorial development in all its pain, beauty, and complexity. And it conveys the feat she takes upon herself in attempting to tell her story in the first place, much less through honest, tasteful, and mature artistry.
Kogonada and Hogg’s films have little in common in terms of plot, but they share much in theme and approach. Both films are patient, well-observed, and primarily concerned with people trying to move on in the aftermath of a confounding life change — two very different versions of losing someone. After Yang addresses that loss through memory while The Souvenir Part II addresses it through filmmaking and creating art. Both gracefully recognize the arduous balancing act between self-reflection and communal modes of healing.
To take it one step further, both films are distinguished in their prominent, lush depictions of nature as a source of healing and growth. Be it futuristic floral arrangements on a courtyard wall or a bucolic British pasture, nature serves a similar role in both. Namely, in the way nature helps to create a ruminative, restorative atmosphere on screen.
The Souvenir Part II opens on a tranquil field of white flowers gently waltzing in the wind. The image is luxuriant and perfectly faint. An early morning fog hangs low, draping the shot in a gauzy aesthetic that carries through the film and sets a gentle mood for the lighter-toned color palette to come. Lavender, peach, rose, daffodil, cornflower, cream, white, silver, and gold – colors that represent Julie, her feelings, what’s happening around her, and her inner self.
The green of leaves, stems, grass, and vines is varied and usually a bit darker in tone, but it’s also the most important color when it comes to evoking a sense of healing, green historically and thematically associated with renewal, freshness, and growth. It’s the most present color in the nature imagery, but it’s not the most prominent. Instead, it acts like a neutral canvas that allows the more delicate colors to pop.
Taking this opening shot for example and thinking about it in terms of character, theme, and plot, the overgrown green of the nature imagery is Julie’s willingness to confront her pain and learn from it. The green is her creative discipline, her determination to grow, her platform, her source of energy. It’s the opportunity she’s given herself. And from that opportunity, from that green field, surrounded by that boundless source of natural energy, she can flower into something new and whole and beautiful, rising tall above the verdant prairie grass to dance in the glint of the sun.
We sit with the shot for a while before we begin the story. And we return to it, or shots like it, often in The Souvenir Part II. Even when we’re not in literal nature, plants come in the form of wallpapers, paintings, and other interior and exterior design. The prominence and significance of nature imagery is Hogg’s way of keeping the theme of growth present and fluid within the narrative, and it works wonders.
Kogonada employs the same technique through a much darker color palette. And perhaps artificial plants (it’s hard to tell, but the future setting suggests it). But that doesn’t diminish the effect of viridescence in After Yang. If there’s one shot parallel to the opening shot of The Souvenir Part II, it would be the bright, floral shot of Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) talking to Jake (Colin Farrell).
Whenever she speaks to him in person, she’s centered in the frame at a medium distance, shoulders lining the bottom of the screen with a little space above her head. Around her is a paradisal glow of blown-out light and a prismatic display of flowers akin to the bio-botany explosion of color stretched across the pool wall in Annihilation. It’s a saintly depiction and accurate for one of the most kind, healing, and temperate characters you’ll ever meet. But it doesn’t carry the same thematic weight as the Souvenir Part II shot. It’s just the most noteworthy and repeated.
There isn’t one shot in After Yang that captures it all. In building his futuristic, minimally seen world, Kogonada finds ways to insert plants in strange places that make sense. For example, no one in the near future drives themselves. It’s more like Minority Report, where self-driving cars move people around. However, in Minority Report, those cars drive outside. Here, everyone travels through tunnels, which means little opportunity for using nature as a thematic and aesthetic boost.
So, Kogonada looked at the world around him and made a sensible, creative choice. In the same way that many of us have loaded up on house plants after coming to understand their daily contributions to well-being after a year and a half inside, Kogonada loads the self-driving cars in After Yang up with plants.
Whenever they’re in the car, a row of shrubbery sits behind them as the soft, Fallen Angels-esque green light of the tunnel rushes smoothly across the surface of the window, adding to the verdurous tone. They’re usually pensive in the car, trying to understand, trying to heal. Inside at night, Kogonada shoots their home in the warmest, dimmest golden light you can imagine, complimented by raw wood and bronzed metals. But plants are still everywhere in their house. Hanging from ceilings, latched onto the walls, spread across surfaces, tucked into wooden cubbies.
Some shades are closer to black than a recognizable green, but the shadowed color always comes through in After Yang. We’re reminded that regardless of setting or brightness, that Kyra, Jake, and Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) carry the same desire, discipline, and patience to move beyond the helper’s malfunction and grow to understand themselves and each other better in the process. As a tri-racial family, learning to understand each other has also clearly been a major theme throughout their lives together.
Maybe it’s a renewed focus on plants born out of the pandemic, maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe a deeper dive into film history would reveal plant-as-healing-agent as one of cinema’s more universal themes. But whatever the case, Cannes is teaming with gorgeously shot grass, plants, petals, trees, meadows, and flowers. It’s not just After Yang and The Souvenir Part II. The film I just got out of, Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, had the same emphasis on plants in its cinematography, once again to convey healing from traumatic, unpredictable events.
The prominence of it says something about the alluring soulfulness of nature and the deeply healing relationship we have with it. And at the same time, the prominence and resulting sense of mystery and awe ensure we won’t ever fully understand why or how we have this connection. We can talk about nature’s biological benefits or its enigmatic aesthetic wonder, but the spiritual, existential respite it provides remains something we can only experience.