If every sci-fi film about A.I. is predicated on the question of what it means to be human, After Yang complexifies that inquiry to ask: what does it mean to be Asian? The film injects fresh perspective and nuance into a genre known for its long, troubling history of Orientalism. Kogonada, a Korean-American who uses a Japanese moniker, uses Yang as a conduit for some of his personal anxieties. “My own struggle with my Asian identity often is in the world of its construction: Do I perceive myself as Asian, not Asian enough, too Asian? There’s no solid ground for that identity, especially if you’ve been dislocated, so we have to contend with the way that Asia and Asians have been presented [in media],” the director has said. The film invites us to consider what shapes our understanding of cultural identity.
“The discussions of culture in the film were interesting to Kogonada and to me, as a person of Indian descent living in the U.S.,” Bhasin says. “All these things that were very personal to us found a place in the film and are what the film is ultimately about.” In sourcing designer pieces to flesh out the characters’ wardrobes, Bhasin happened to select labels that also have transcultural origins, including Korean-German designer Siki Im, Chinese-American designer Phillip Lim, and Jan-Jan Van Essche, a Belgian designer known for Japanese-inspired menswear. Bhasin mixed the high-end garments with nondescript textiles and borrowed pieces from friends’ closets to achieve what felt supportive to each character’s story. “There has been a move in modern science fiction to make everyone dress the same, and they’re just part of a machine,” Bhasin says. “We wanted to feel like everyone was individual, everyone made choices, and everyone felt the way they felt about clothing.”
Bhasin’s personalized approach is indicative of the broader intentionality that prevents After Yang’s bountiful style from eclipsing its substance. With Bhasin’s help, Kogonada’s lush world is replete with thoughtful details. Apiece as deceptively simple as a t-shirt for a fictional band called The Lily Chou-Chou is a loaded reference that also reveals Yang’s youthful spirit. Meanwhile, a brief shot in which the light bounces off Kyra’s silk top signifies a “reflective” moment for her character towards the film’s conclusion.
Elsewhere, the costuming is foregrounded in the action. Take the whimsical opening credits sequence, where the full slate of characters, each in formation with their family, performs a choreographed dance routine in iridescent, elasticated jumpsuits and matching jackets. An automated voiceover helps us glean that these families and thousands of others are synchronous competitors in a monthly, remotely-conducted dance-off, where their seemingly unsophisticated outfits interact with movement-tracking technology. “[The idea was] they start doing this dance contest and receive these outfits in the mail. We wanted something that felt sci-fi, but also felt kind of bad, like Amazon Prime costumes,” Bhasin explains. ” Though the contest is non-essential to the plot, it’s a clever bit of world-building by Bhasin and Kogonada that invites us into the film.
Wearable technology plays a more pivotal role later in the film, when Jake dons a pair of VR glasses that allow him to play back Yang’s stored memories. Seeing the world through Yang’s eyes is a radical perspective shift that demystifies Yang to Jake and exemplifies the emotionally rich interior life that Asian characters are so often denied. With guidance from Kogonada and DP Benjamin Loeb, Bhasin was careful that the design of the glasses wouldn’t undercut the poignancy of the scene, ultimately choosing a delicate pair of hexagonal frames from Mykita. “They wanted the technology to be hidden, [so] that it wasn’t flashy,” he says. “We pulled a bunch of different glasses to see what was stylish but also kind of disappeared. We wanted it to be the simplest form of what it was.”
Simplicity may ultimately be the film’s greatest strength. The most resonant sci-fi endures not because it successfully predicts the future, but because it telegraphs something timeless about human existence. For all its imagination and flair, After Yang’s futuristic world is designed for us to recognize ourselves in it.