‘An empty space can break me’: meet Kogonada, the director desperate for connection | Movie

Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Cher… many of our finest artists are known by mononyms. South Korean-born American filmmaker Kogonada may not be much of a household name (yet), but he’s a name worth getting to know.

His latest film, After Yang, is about a father (Colin Farrell) who desperately searches for answers when his daughter’s older robot brother (Justin H Min) shuts down unexpectedly. This daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) has been adopted by American parents (Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith), but comes from a Chinese background. That’s where a robot big brother comes in: In this version of the future, you can buy siblings that come fully equipped with a lifetime legacy of your choice. Despite these science fiction guises, After Yang is a delicate and gentle work, born, its creator says, of a desire to reconnect with a sensibility he worried he’d lost.

“I went through a cynical phase in my life and felt quite averse to any film that didn’t feed my cynicism,” says Kogonada. A personal tragedy (he would prefer to leave the exact nature of the tragedy unspoken) “began to sensitize me. My cynicism felt embarrassing and trite in the face of actual loss and heartache. In doing so, it returned me to what I loved about the cinema and the cinematic experience. It allowed me to be more honest and open.” Soft-spoken and thoughtful, with a keen sense of intellectual curiosity, when we meet for an hour in a London hotel, Kogonada takes pains to explain that he’s not convinced he’ll make sense in his current jet-lagged state. But actually he’s more lucid and insightful than most people when they’ve had their full eight hours, something I try not to hold against him.

Memory Bank … Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Justin H Min in After Yang.
Memory Bank … Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Justin H Min in After Yang. Photo: Sky UK/Linda Kallerus

He seems preoccupied with the role of film in a world that, as he puts it, “seems to be on fire”. It is a familiar dilemma for any artist whose work is not polemical. After Yang may not be explicitly about political unrest, but when you watch it, there are traces of it taking place in a post-apocalyptic society. Not a Mad Max situation, but maybe 70 years after some kind of unspoken disaster in a wiser and sadder civilization; one that has been bruised but not broken. “You want to make work that can stand up in the face of tragedy and political turmoil,” says Kogonada. “I don’t think it necessarily means that you do work about tragedy and political turmoil, but something worthwhile in light of that.”

This feels like an important distinction between pure escapism and art worth fighting for. “Well, maybe film is a form of escapism, which Hitchcock believed and mastered. Or maybe it’s a form of vote to the world or to humanity through comedy or romance or drama. Whatever it is, you want it to be worth the time. Both the process and for the viewer.”

Kogonada’s own everyday life is shrouded in mystery: he is of the school that is convinced that the work speaks for itself. Even his real name is unknown. But we do know that he left South Korea for the US as a child, has a wife and children, and worked in academia before turning to film. He started out as a video essayist whose visual works on Stanley Kubrick, neorealism and Wes Anderson caught the attention of producers. It ultimately led to his first opportunity to make fiction films, the low-budget drama Columbus. An instant hit at Sundance in 2017, this debut feature explored the world of architecture and matters of the heart with equal insight.

Symmetrical … Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus
Symmetrical … Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

From his work and musings, you might have thought that Kogonada is an arm’s-length intellectual, head in the clouds, pondering the purpose of life and art. In person, he is warm and attentive and asks almost as many questions as I do. He seems attracted to details. For example, he notices the appearance of my notepad. The notebook page that catches his attention is spiked with writing running in all directions. “I like that,” he smiles. “It feels like my notepad. The diagonal writing all over it. I have hundreds of notepads.”

Notepads are of course a traditional way of doing something that newer technology has updated. Where memory and personality are connected with man-made technology is a core task for After Yang. As a subject, this is a well from which thoughtful science fiction has drunk deeply, from Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The key to the lasting impact of these films, and the ones Kogonada makes, though, is that the formal fireworks never quite drown out the emotional aspect. “As a filmmaker, it’s about trying to find that balance between formality and emotional integrity. I happened to be moved by the form: the form of presence and absence. An empty room can break me. But it can also be cold and distant if that’s all there is. My desire is to be equally aware of the world of emotions. When I walk into a theater, I want to be touched. I don’t just want an intellectual experience. I would like to connect. I want to feel.”

Table talk … Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith in After Yang.
Table talk … Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith in After Yang. Photo: Sky UK/Linda Kallerus

The theme of technology and connectivity comes up repeatedly as we speak. Kogonada seems irresistibly drawn back to it. “I read recently that there are more people in their 30s and 40s who are single than at any other time in history. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem. Independence is commendable. But for all the technologies that supposedly connect us to one another, there is a growing sense of separation. The struggle to truly connect with another human being remains. And whatever that means, there is a longing for it.”

That longing for connection is also present in his work as a video essayist, which is often about showing (rather than telling viewers) how filmmakers have the effect that they do. The “video essayist to narrative filmmaker” pitch is perhaps one we can expect to see more of. After all, the French New Wave of the 1960s was composed almost entirely of radical film critics-turned-directors (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, the list goes on), while video essays are a form of film criticism in which some of today’s most far-sighted ideas can be found.

But Kogonada’s idol is the revered Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu. Even his chosen nom de plume is a riff on the name of Ozu’s longtime collaborator, Kōgo Noda. Like his idol, who briefly flirted with teaching, Kogonada also worked as an academic. Unlike his idol, who was able to make a film almost every year from 1927 until his last film in 1962, Kogonada works in the 21st century, an era where independent filmmakers struggle to find what their ancestors would recognize as a reliable career with consistent work. It is relatively rare to come across indie filmmakers who have had any kind of longevity without also working in commercial cinema.

In addition to his work as an academic and video essayist, Kogonada has made a foray into prestige television with Pachinko on Apple TV+, a poignant and glossy epic that weaves together multiple timelines in the history of a Korean family. It is tempting to draw grand conclusions about the way in which Kogonada’s single-minded desire to be a filmmaker conflicts with his broader curiosity about the many forms creativity can take. But as always underlying such possibilities is the cold, hard fact of economics in a world where virtually no independent filmmaker is able to make films with anything like the freedom and consistency that previous directors have.

As Kogonada puts it, “The struggle is always that balance between what feels important to you and trying to survive in a capitalist society, which is to make money. I don’t know if I can afford to be indulgent. I have a family to support. I grew up working class. But I also struggle with the idea of ​​money as an incentive.”

Cost of Living … Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim in Pachinko.
Cost of Living … Inji Jeong, Yeji Yeon and Bomin Kim in Pachinko. Photo: Juhan Noh/Apple TV+

Not that he’s about to abandon the themes that drew him to filmmaking: “In my first two films I explored connection and disconnection in relation to family, which I imagine will always be interesting to me, but I I’m keen to explore this in the context of romantic possibilities. And as for the comic, I’ve always been a fan of its various forms. Maybe fan isn’t the right word. It’s a need, a comfort, a pleasure. When it’s experienced, you feel I have a huge appreciation. Maybe fan is the right word. I want to give more space to the comedian. It’s such a deeply human part of us. You know laughing is connecting.”

It would be interesting to see what a horror or comedy or musical or romance might look like filtered through the lens of Kogonada’s sensibility. Maybe an action movie could even be a good fit? “Besides the romantic and comedic, my first love was wuxia movies. They are a martial form of dance and drama that fascinated me. I would love to find or create a project that incorporated elements of wuxia. With all that said, I am still very committed to a certain kind of film and filmmaking.”

Ultimately, he says, whether you’re a filmmaker or not, “it’s damn hard to be human. We’re isolated in our own subjectivity. We often feel like no one really understands us. We long for real connection. We’re all trying just getting through the day with a sense of meaning. That’s what I’m also trying to understand through my own engagement with cinema and filmmaking.”

After Yang is in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema now.

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