Are video essays cinema? Well, the answer might depend on who made the essay(s) in question. If you go to the Letterboxd page listing all the works of Kogonada, you will find that many if not all of the filmmaker’s video essays are on there, ready for logging.
Whether they are “cinema” makes for an interesting debate. But no matter the answer, they are part of his body of work, central to his artistry. How could anyone see his video essays, which are among the finest works in the history of the form, and then watch Kogonada’s feature films (including his debut, Columbus) without recalling the images he repurposed, reimagined, and often reinvigorated through his audiovisual criticism?
Kogonada’s second feature, After Yang, already belongs in the conversation for best movie of the year. The film takes place in a futuristic world more technologically advanced than ours. Androids live amongst humans, including Yang (Justin H. Min), a repurposed “techno-sapien.” Parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) purchased Yang to help their adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), understand and maintain her Chinese heritage.
The story begins with Yang, who serves as a brother, companion, and teacher to Mika, malfunctioning. He breaks down and nears death. Others insist that Jake should count his losses and scrap Yang for parts. But Jake tries — and ultimately fails — to restore Yang and thus his family. In the process, he finds an unknown component of the techno-sapien: Yang had been recording small moments of his life — seconds that together capture Yang’s essence and impact on others, including those he touched before joining Jake’s family.
Jake spends nights watching Yang’s life and at times reexperiences his own. Doing so helps him realize many things: the distance he had created between himself and his family, the ways he had allowed time and life to simply pass by, and the deep impact Yang had on those around him, namely Mika. It is through these images and sounds, which are sometimes deeply familiar and personal, that Jake finds a new way of seeing everything that is right in front of him.
The sequences in which Jake watches Yang’s life recall Kogonada’s video essay practice. It’s the clearest example yet of the medium’s impact on his feature filmmaking. Consider for a moment what most video essays are: ways to see, hear, and understand the familiar in new ways. Or as another influential video essayist, Kevin B. Lee, has defined them: “works of media that use other media to create critical thought.”
In After Yang, Jake wears a virtual headset to make his way through Yang’s memory bank of sounds and images. The memories appear before him like the timeline of a video editing program. The clips are ready to be clicked, shuffled, watched, paused, and rewound at a moment’s notice. Jake essentially repurposes this footage to create a collage of Yang’s life, a kind of film within the film.
Assembling fragments of moving image objects made Kogonada a pioneering video essayist: the eyes of Alfred Hitchcock, the hands of Robert Bresson, and the passageways of Yasujirō Ozu, to name a few. Much of Kogonada’s video essay work also concerns itself with the relationship between cinema and life. And in particular, the ways the medium negotiates the passage of time.
Such works include his essay on the films of Richard Linklater, rooted in conversation with the director, and his seminal video on neorealism. In the description for his video “Auteur In Space,” most of which concerns the 1972 Soviet sci-fi film Solaris, Kogonada simply leaves a quote by its director, Andrei Tarkovsky:
“In all my films, it seemed important to me to remind the audience to the fact that they are not alone, lost in an empty universe, but that they are connected by innumerable threads with their past and present, that through certain mystical ways, every human being realizes the rapport with the world and the life of humanity.”
After Yang is concerned with what it means to be human. How do technological developments, the evolution of our emotions and relationships with it and each other, alter understandings of humanity? Is the relationship between Yang and his family, and the love and grief they feel, any less real?
It is easy to be deeply cynical about technology. In fact, more cynicism is probably needed in our time. But with After Yang, Kogonada uses technology as a means to probe such questions. He offers a gentle exploration of the now. Of existing in a moment perhaps defined by immense personal loss and technological gain.
Through watching and creating a kind of film from Yang’s memory bank, Jake discovers Yang’s humanity. He also rediscovers his own. In doing so, he finds a way to reengage with those he loves most.
This deeply philosophical film leaves viewers with numerous avenues for reflection. Chief among them is the sheer power of the moving image. Just as his video essays leave us experiencing cinema in new ways, Kogonada’s After Yang gives its protagonist, and thus its audience, a new way of seeing, hearing, and comprehending the world in which we live.
After Yang debuts in theaters and on Showtime on March 4, 2022.