What It Means To Be Human
We all know what it takes to be human, right? In fact, as far as most of us are concerned, it’s a done deal, case closed, no further discussion. However, in an age of rapidly evolving technology, we’ve begun to realize that those hard and fast definitions have come up for reevaluation. A friend, for instance, has always been thought of as someone we interact with in person, not someone we communicate with halfway around the globe on the internet and have never met physically. But do these circumstances with such an electronic pen pal make this individual any less of a friend? Distinctions like this can carry profound implications, even more so than by this example, as seen in the thoughtful new cinematic meditation, “After Yang” (web site, trailer).
What constitutes a family? That’s a question whose answer has been steadily evolving in recent decades. The traditional nuclear family, consisting of a pair of heterosexual parents and their offspring, generally of the same racial or ethnic background, has gradually been giving way to alternate configurations with increasing degrees of variation and acceptance. And it’s a trend that’s likely to continue on into the future as new developments begin to enter the picture. That’s particularly true in light of the evolution taking place in the nature of individuality. Indeed, given that families inherently consist of collections of individuals, the nature of those groupings will continue to change as the nature of those who make them up also continue to change. For example, as we move forward, will individuality continue to be based strictly on questions of biology alone, or will something else – like sentience – supplant or complement it? That being the case, then, what we think of as families and individuals may become something very different from what we’ve been traditionally accustomed to.
Such is the case in the Fleming household, a San Francisco family of the future. Parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) live with their adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), a young Chinese girl. However, given that Mika’s Caucasian father and African-American mother come from vastly different backgrounds from her, Jake and Kyra are concerned that their daughter may not have enough of an opportunity to learn about her cultural heritage. Also, as an only child, they believe she could benefit greatly from the presence of an older sibling role model. But how can such a void be filled?
The answer is simple, thanks to a company called Brothers and Sisters Inc. The company has developed sophisticated trans-sapien technologies, enabling families to fill in the gaps in their households by making it possible to purchase synthetic beings (mostly children and siblings) who embody the qualities they’re looking for. In the Flemings’ case, for instance, Jake and Kyra approached the company to acquire an older brother for Mika, an Asian young adult who is programmed to be familiar with Chinese culture. These specifications are thus embodied in Yang (Justin H. Min), a synthetic who Jake and Kyra purchase to serve as a loving sibling and mentor for Mika. Yang cares deeply for his younger sister and readily shares an array of insights about life, as well as a wealth of “Chinese fun facts.”
As time passes, Mika comes to adore Yang and vice versa. Yang assimilates into the family so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell he’s not a strictly biological being. He truly blends into the household, and Mika is not the only one who looks upon him as a family member. Jake and Kyra genuinely come to view Yang as their son to the same degree that they view Mika as their daughter, even though both of them are not their own biological offspring. Together they make for a loving family unit. Indeed, who says that the nuclear model is the only one that’s truly “legitimate”?
All is well until one day when Yang inexplicably starts to malfunction, a development that starkly impacts the family household. Mika is especially upset, given how much she adores her older brother. And her parents, particularly Jake, are committed to find out what’s gone wrong. They’re determined to do whatever they can to see that Yang is properly repaired, especially since he’s still under warranty. But, as this process plays out, Jake and Kyra quickly find that this may be easier said than done. The warranty, it seems, doesn’t cover what appears to be ailing Yang, and fixing the problem may not be possible. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that recycling Yang for another trans-sapien unit may be the only realistic option.
Jake is far from satisfied with this solution. He sees Yang as more than a household appliance and, accordingly, is willing to explore alternative possibilities further. At the recommendation of the family’s neighbor, George (Clifton Collins Jr.), Jake takes Yang to a free-lance repairman, Russ (Ritchie Coster), who clandestinely fixes malfunctioning units like Yang – and not always legally.
After initially examining Yang, Russ also concludes that he may well be beyond repair. His investigation is more thorough than what was done at the warranty center, though the answer is essentially the same. However, Russ proposes one additional possibility that might offer a solution, even though it would involve performing an illegal procedure. Essentially the procedure calls for opening up Yang’s central processing mechanism, a practice that would violate the manufacturer’s protected proprietary technology rights. Jake is admittedly reluctant, but, if it offers potential hope for a restoration, he’s willing to go along with it.
Despite the possibilities this procedure offers, as the repair process drags out, the family grows increasingly torn. Mika has become distraught over the fate of her brother. Kyra, meanwhile, has come to believe that it’s time to move on, that the stress of this situation has begun to place undue strain on the well-being of the household. And Jake, in his efforts to be a caring and protective father, has grown weary over everything that has gone on and what it has done to his family, especially Mika. He begins to wonder how much longer he can allow this to continue and what else he might do to reach a solution that’s in everyone’s best interests.
Upon completion of the covert procedure, Russ reveals that Yang indeed can’t be repaired. However, in the course of his work, he makes a startling discovery – he finds that Yang has been fitted with a sophisticated recording device, one that compiles a wealth of the unit’s memories. Russ speculates that this device is essentially a form of spyware that the manufacturer uses to collect a wealth of highly personal information about the unit’s owners for data mining purposes, information that’s subsequently harvested and sold at the time the unit is recycled. It’s quite a revelation, not to mention an egregious invasion of privacy.
But Jake’s interest in the recording device is different. He hopes it might provide clues as to what caused Yang to malfunction, so he decides to review the recordings with that aim in mind. And what he finds is eye-opening. He gains new insight into what Yang believed to be important in his life. More than that, though, he also develops a new appreciation for the impact that Yang had on him, Mika and Kyra, as well as a mystery woman (Haley Lu Richardson) whom Jake knew nothing about. But, most importantly, this exercise provides everyone – characters and viewers alike – with a new understanding of what it means to be “human,” regardless of whether one’s nature is based on biology or technology.
What is the family to do with this information? And what’s to become of Yang? What prompted the malfunction that led to his demise? And who is the mystery woman who showed up in his memories? That all remains to be seen as events play out in the wake of this domestic misfortune.
Given the power and persistence of our outlooks on the world, it’s easy for our views to become locked into place. That’s attributable to our beliefs, the building blocks of our existence. However, as experience shows us, despite such power and persistence, our beliefs can also be quite malleable, adaptable to new thoughts and ideas, particularly when evidence appears showing us that the notions we once thought were intractably unchangeable are indeed capable of adjustment and alteration. And, as this movie shows, that’s true for such basic life assumptions as what we believe constitutes the nature of family, individuality and humanity.
For instance, “After Yang” provides us with a blueprint for how it’s possible to see ourselves and those we love as being based on considerations other than mere biology, the belief basis we have typically used for ages. As the film shows us, it’s indeed conceivable for Jake, Kyra and Mika to have a deep, meaningful relationship with a synthetic. Yang’s sentience and emotions appear to be just as “real” as anything a flesh-and-blood biological is capable of, so is it any surprise that his family members would react the same way toward him that they do toward one another? If you doubt that, think of this another way: Jake and Kyra love Mika just as much as if she were their own biological offspring, yet, as their adopted daughter, clearly she’s not, but that difference doesn’t block the connection between them. So why should it be otherwise with Yang?
These changing definitions of what we believe constitutes family and individuality reflect our ability to overcome limitations in our perspectives. And that, in turn, illustrates for us how our beliefs are often based on arbitrary distinctions, choices that can be changed as long as we allow it. In fact, such shifts should actually be expected, since evolution is inherent in the nature of existence, that everything is in a constant state of becoming. If this concept seems uncannily familiar, one need only look to the Buddhist precept of the impermanence of all things. Indeed, all things considered, at bottom, those notions don’t seem fundamentally different from one another.
The more we look at this, the more we begin to realize, does it really matter from whence sentience arises? If the impact that another’s consciousness has on us is as profound as is depicted in the Fleming household, is it really important where those feelings originate? This becomes apparent in the review of Yang’s memories, when we see his profound heartfelt interactions with Jake, Kyra, Mika and the mystery woman. As Jake, a tea vendor, discusses his fascination for the beverage and its potentially transcendental nature, we witness Yang’s sincere intent to share in this understanding. When Kyra admires Yang’s butterfly collection, they engage in a deep, meaningful philosophical discussion about the metaphorical metamorphosis that occurs when a caterpillar evolves into what it eventually becomes. In a stroll through a garden with Mika, Yang explains the age-old horticultural practice of grafting and how it symbolizes what happens in a family when “outsiders” are joined to the collective and how it makes the unit more richly diverse. These are insights and reactions one might not typically expect to come from an “artificial” life form.
Yang’s existence also draws attention to another belief worthy of being dispelled – that artificial intelligence is intrinsically – and always – harmful. Through a bevy of sci-fi stories, we have been routinely conditioned to believe that there’s absolutely nothing good that can possibly come out of such technology. But can one honestly say that the ways in which Yang interacts with his family members are innately evil? To be sure, one could make an argument in favor of that notion because of his internal recording device as a means of conducting invasive data mining, but it’s important to remember that this is a technology developed by man, not by the synthetic. Indeed, that naturally makes one wonder who the real villain is here.
By extension, the film also makes clear how important it is for us to incorporate elements in our existence that help to offset the impact of a high-tech world. The ubiquitous presence of technology in this future existence is routinely and deliberately counterbalanced with high-touch aspects – prolific and beautiful gardens, environments filled with serenity-inducing elements, and, of course, the presence of gentle, compassionate, empathetic artificial life forms. We need such influences in our lives (especially these days), and their essential importance is recognized in this society of tomorrow. Such elements can be introduced any time we want; all it takes is the will to do so and the supporting beliefs to make it happen.
The impact on biologicals like us can truly be significant, too. It urges a greater respect toward others and the world around us, including all of its elements, regardless of the fundamental foundations underlying their existence. It promotes wider acceptance and tolerance of others, including those who are different from us. In fact, it even prompts a heartfelt desire for honored remembrance, such as when Jake contemplates memorializing Yang’s life in a museum exhibit with the assistance of a compassionate curator (Sarita Choudhury). If that’s not a step forward for humanity, I don’t know what is.
It’s also impressive to see the lengths that Jake is willing to go to in order to save Yang. It’s more than just trying to effect repairs to a piece of broken-down technology. It’s a genuine effort to save a member of the family, to preserve the loving, collective nature of the household for its continued health and well-being. This kind of touching heroic effort is to be commended for what it seeks to achieve, illustrating a kind of compassion and appreciation that we could all stand to learn from. And to think that such a lesson in learning what really matters in life comes to the family – and us – from a machine. What a tremendous irony – and insight – that is.
How often does a movie seek to address the big questions of life? Well, if you’re the filmmaker Kogonada, the answer to that question would appear to be “every time.” Like his previous beautiful and ambitious release “Columbus” (2017), the director has successfully followed up that offering with this even more beautiful and ambitious project. Based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” this thoughtful and emotive cinematic meditation raises intriguing questions about what it means to be human, largely through countless recollections that bring those considerations to the fore and give both characters and viewers pause to examine and reevaluate outlooks that may have once been rigid but can now be looked upon in a more fluid light. With fine performances all around, stupendously gorgeous cinematography (a Kogonada hallmark) and a lovely background score, “After Yang” evokes a profound array of moods, from joyful to sad to reflective, leaving one supremely touched by the experience, and it’s all accomplished without violence, evildoers or malevolence. There are occasional pacing issues, and a few of the ideas raised are left less than resolved (most likely intentionally), but overall this is a truly stirring experience, one whose impact will linger long after the lights come up. The picture is playing theatrically and online.
When all is said and done in our lives, do the tangible qualities of those who have impacted us the most really matter in the end? Perhaps that might be true in certain contexts, like sexuality, but, when it comes to the things that really matter most – the intangible emotional bonds we forge with such individuals, for example – does it really matter if they’re biological, technological or even physically present in our lives? When framed in that way, we have an entirely new perspective to draw from, even though the bottom line influence and connection may be the same in either case. Indeed, it’s the bond that ultimately really matters most, and that, it would seem, is what truly counts when it comes to our assessments of what it means to be human. Yang shows us this here. Maybe we should listen.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
And the Winners Are…
With the Oscars right around the corner, it’s prediction time! Who will take home hardware on Sunday March 27? Here’s my annual look at who I believe will come up winners in the top six categories – best actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, director and picture. Check it out by clicking here. Wish me luck, and enjoy!
Movies and More on Frankiesense, Part 2!
Join guest host Ishita Sharma and yours truly for this month’s second helping of a special double dose of movie fun on Frankiesense & More! The first, which aired on March 3, will be followed up with its partner on March 24, which will include new movie reviews and my predictions for the Oscars in the top six categories. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!
On Courage, Hope and Determination
When life beats us down, it can be nearly impossible to pick ourselves up off the ground. With so much holding us back, we may be unable to know how to go about it or even where to start. Yet, if we’re to carry on, we somehow have to figure out how to summon up the courage, hope and determination to move forward. Such is the experience of a group of wartime survivors as seen in the troubling yet inspiring new fact-based drama, “Hive” (“Zgjoi”) (web site, trailer).
When the madness of war mercilessly tears families apart, the survivors are left to pick up the pieces, a process that can sometimes be far more complicated than one might expect. So it was for the women of Kosovo in the wake of the tiny Balkan republic’s bombardment by neighboring Serbia in 1999, a conflict that resulted in the “disappearance” of many of the nation’s husbands and fathers, leaving their wives and mothers to carry on. But their efforts to do so were often thwarted by a misogynistic culture that sought to prevent them from engaging in anything other than the traditional roles they typically played, including earning a living even in the ubiquitous absence of male breadwinners.
Such is the story of Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi), wife of Agimi (Armend Smajli), mother of two children, a teenage daughter, Zana (Kaona Sylejmani), and a young son, Edoni (Mal Niah Sadqiu), and caregiver to her aging and ailing father-in-law, Haxhiu (Çun Lajçi). In 1999, the family’s town of Krusha e Madhe was stormed by invading forces in which many of the men were summarily rounded up and taken away. Their fates were officially unknown, even though most everyone knew that they had been killed, their bodies dumped in mass graves or a nearby river. This left many families, including the Hoti household, without husbands, fathers and incomes.
While the United Nations stepped in to search for the missing in the wake of the unspeakable carnage, the process was slow, and, in most cases, all that was found were badly decomposed remains and remnants of tattered clothing – not much to work with when it came to making definitive identification of who was found. And, after seven frustrating years of few meaningful results, the survivors of the lost needed to get on with their lives, particularly generating income to keep their family households afloat. Given who was left behind, this was a task that fell to the women, but most attempts aimed at making a living were met with fierce opposition from the remaining men of the village.
The region’s longstanding chauvinistic mindset maintained that women were supposed to clean the house, cook the meals and rear the children only, not engage in prohibited pursuits like starting businesses or even driving cars. After all, these clueless sexists believed, what would their men think once they finally returned home and found their women doing such heinous things? Free-thinking attitudes like this were incontrovertible evidence that these disobedient women were inherently untrustworthy, raising the specter that they were also probably involved in all manner of other nefarious and lascivious activities. This scorn toward them led to acts of violence against them and their property, as well as rampant namecalling that earned them such disparaging labels as “whore.”
Nevertheless, bills had to be paid, and food had to be put on the table. To earn money, Fahrije initially took over the beekeeping operation launched by Agimi, producing honey sold by Haxhiu in the local market. But, even though it produced a modest income, it wasn’t enough. And, compared to many of her peers, Fahrije was fortunate to be earning anything. The women of Krusha e Madhe clearly had to do something to support themselves, despite the obstacles.
With the assistance of a local women’s organization, Fahrije and a group of her kindreds banded together to form a company that manufactured ajvar, a relish made from red peppers and eggplants, which they sold in a local supermarket. They faced numerous challenges, such as vandalism of their delivery vehicle (Fahrije’s car) and attempted sexual abuse by a local produce wholesaler (Astrit Kabashi). They also went to great lengths to keep the business afloat, such as pooling their funds from the sale of family jewelry. But they remained committed, sticking together and drawing from the strength of Fahrije and Nazmije (Kumrije Huxha), the wise old matriarch of the group.
Through it all, in addition to the ongoing financial and cultural challenges, the women also had personal issues to deal with. Fahrije, for example, still had a family to care for, including an often-belligerent adolescent daughter and a father-in-law who vociferously tried to dissuade her from her “dangerous” ventures. Then there was the frustrating ongoing search for Agimi’s remains, a process aided by a forensic investigator (Shkelqim Islami) who, unfortunately, repeatedly failed to obtain a DNA sample from Haxhiu, a tool that could potentially expedite the matter and at last put the issue to rest. This, of course, perpetuated the profound grief that Fahrije felt over the disappearance of her husband and the lingering doubt about what actually happened to him. This all made for quite a full plate.
However, the collective strength of the group helped to keep the business going at a time when its continued existence was essential. Indeed, cooperation and teamwork can be powerful forces to counteract the perils that surround us, as the women of this village learned for themselves. Like the bees who kept their hives thriving, this determined collective did the same, not only for themselves, but also for their sense of hope for a better future.
The burdens placed on Fahrije and the other women of her village are unimaginable. Difficulties in just one of these areas would be challenging enough, but, considering the myriad issues they’re up against, it’s almost inconceivable to fathom how they could possibly carry on. Missing husbands, economic hardship, unresolved grief and relentless ignorance-based harassment represent quite an array of adversity, but what can the women do under these circumstances? Simply giving up is not an option, so something has to be done. But what? And how?
Overcoming obstacles as overwhelming and pervasive as these is indeed possible, but success depends on one’s ability to become convinced about the prospect. And that, in turn, rests with one’s beliefs, the foundation of one’s reality. Embracing that notion is imperative in Fahrije’s case, as everything she and her collaborators hope to achieve depends on it.
For starters, the women of Fahrije’s collective must adopt beliefs that rid them of fears and limitations, impediments that could easily hold them back from attaining any of their goals. And, in light of their circumstances, they have an abundance of potential fear- and limitation-based beliefs to vanquish, any of which could undercut their aims. However, given the power of their motivations and the depth of their needs, they also have ample inspiration and impetus to drive the formation of suitable beliefs designed to overcome these undermining influences and enable them to fulfill their objectives.
Once armed with ample courage, fortitude and determination and free of the hindrances that had long held them back, the women were then able to allocate their energies to the development of beliefs aimed at helping them envision possibilities and creative solutions that they previously had been unable to do. This led to the formation of their support group, then the idea to start a business, and then the means to make its formation, development and growth possible. It also enabled them to stand up to those who tried to undermine their efforts, to put the naysayers in their place, and to allow them to come into their own as fully actualized individuals, savvy entrepreneurs and empowered heroes.
Undoubtedly this all came about largely as a result of the individual strivings of Fahrije and her colleagues. But it also resulted from their collective efforts, their ability to work jointly in committed acts of co-creation, not unlike the bees in Fahrije’s hives. By pooling their belief resources, they were able to significantly amplify the magnitude of their intentions, making it possible to not only achieve, but also to exceed, their expectations. That certainly proved comforting, at least when it came to addressing their everyday basic survival needs. And, with that matter covered, it freed up resources to work on beliefs and solutions for their personal considerations, such as their efforts aimed at searching for their lost spouses and dealing with their long-unresolved grief, concerns that were hard to attend to when faced with issues as fundamental as putting food on the table.
Most importantly, though, these creative efforts helped to put Fahrije and the other women on a firm footing for the future. It may not have restored what they lost, but it provided them with a foundation on which they could build new lives for themselves and their families. Even their culture was impacted by the introduction of progressive new ideas, concepts designed to help sweep away archaic, outmoded notions that benefitted only a privileged few and kept the remainder of society on the outside looking in. In the process, they realized gains for their gender, as well as the ability to exercise the joy and power of creation for the betterment of themselves and their society, quite an accomplishment from humble beginnings.
Director Blerta Basholli’s fact-based debut feature hits all of the right notes with this inspired yet troubling offering. Its unique combination of raw emotions, steely determination and supportive sisterhood make for a one-of-a-kind viewing experience, one that’s sure to draw out an array of heartfelt feelings and stirring responses from viewing audiences. The film’s striking cinematography and superb script are genuine stand-outs, placing viewers squarely in the circumstances faced by the finely crafted ensemble of characters. But perhaps its greatest asset is the masterful lead performance of Yllka Gashi as the beleaguered but defiant protagonist. With world events being what they are at the moment, this outstanding release reminds us all too poignantly about what we face in the wake of these insane, misguided catastrophes and the difficulty of coming back from them, a challenge that calls for an abundance of commitment and determination in the face of adversely unrelenting circumstances. The film is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.
While “Hive” hasn’t earned any major awards season accolades (despite having been shortlisted as Kosovo’s submission for the Academy Awards’ best international film), it has nevertheless fared well on the film festival circuit. The picture has earned 17 wins and an additional 11 nominations in international competitions around the globe, quite an accomplishment for a first-time narrative feature filmmaker. That should say something about the quality and merits of this fine debut production.
The uplifting example set by the women of Krusha e Madhe should inspire anyone who has come up against adversity and needs to determine how to carry on. The challenges they managed to overcome make many of those that we face pale by comparison. It’s hard to imagine how they could have vanquished everything that they did, but, when our circumstances necessitate us having to do so, somehow we manage to find the inner strength and suitable supporting beliefs to make it happen. We should remember that the next time our backs are against the wall. After all, if these courageous souls can rise up to meet their circumstances, there’s no reason why any of the rest of us can’t – especially when we seemingly have no other choice available to us.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.