Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
On the surface, Columbus seems like another American indie about two very different people from two very different backgrounds coming together in order to learn life lessons, offer platitudes, and maybe even fall in love. To some degree, this superficial synopsis may even lead one to believe this is indeed that kind of film, but South Korean-born writer-director Kogonada, making a remarkable feature debut here, upends every predictable trope inherent within the story.
As someone who has made video essays for The Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, Kogonada's meticulous attention to visual grammar feels natural, but what's most impressive is the incredible empathy for his characters, and how he uses the symmetry of architecture to tell us something about emotional pathology. To suggest Columbus is at least partially concerned with the way art can heighten our connection to the world--represented here by modernist architecture in Columbus, Indiana--may sound pretentious, but the film is such a quietly unassuming force that intellectual themes never overwhelm the beautiful simplicity of the storytelling.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a bookish, uber-intelligent early 20-something longing to escape her small town, but is concerned with leaving her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes). She has a close friend and co-worker (Rory Culkin), who obviously is in love with her if only he could muster up the courage, behind his literate nerdiness, and make his feelings known. Enter a mysterious stranger, Jin (Jon Cho), a visiting Korean book translator whose well-known architect father is lying comatose in the hospital, and one can clearly see where this story is going; i.e. the older man will learn to lighten up and see the brilliance of his estranged father's work, while the younger woman will gain maturity and cynicism by perhaps striking out on her own. However, the brilliance of Columbus is that it never exactly goes where you expect it too. For one thing, the annals of cinema are littered with queasy romances between older men and younger women, but Kogonada refuses to sell this narrative as a love story.
Therefore, the film emerges as an examination of two intelligent people simply getting to know one another, performed with a grace and subtlety rare in American cinema. Though there may be physical attraction here; a fact that Jin admits to his father's American assistant played by Parker Posey, the film never pushes this thread but chooses to instead pivot into more rewarding territory. The mysterious pull of human interaction bracketed by the town's imposing architectural structures is the central theme here, with the characters having the freedom to engage in conversations both intellectual and emotional. Drawing on influences such as Antonioni, Ozu, and Tarkovsky, Kogonada confirms that while a student of the masters, he resists the urge to create a loving pastiche or homage. Images are refracted through mirrors, characters are framed in conjunction with nesting patterns and architectural symmetry, and when the camera moves (which happens rarely), it's purposeful. Take, for instance, Jin and Casey's first meeting; a quiet walk and talk in which the camera tracks them divided by a metal gate. The distance between these two people--separated by age, race, and life circumstances--is brilliantly captured by the mise-en-scène in a way that never feels contrived.
Visually and narratively, Columbus gets at the balance between intellect and emotions. Casey suppresses her larger ambitions because she's devoted to taking care of her recovering addict mother, while Jin feels trapped due to the estrangement from his father. There are recurring shots of buildings, hallways, ingeniously designed structures around town, and a specific bridge that comes into play as a symmetry/ asymmetry motif at the film's beginning and climax. Kogonada's masterful formalism is, therefore, not simply a studied kind of craftsmanship, but a profoundly moving encapsulation of Casey and Jin's inner states. Though these two characters learn from each other, and yes, some form of emotional catharsis occurs, there's little sense that their problems are fixed via some mystical meeting between kindred souls. Much of the film's balance comes from the performances. Cho, an actor known mostly for broad comedies and big budgeted franchises, is so relaxed and natural as a performer here that Jin feels heartbreakingly real; a snapshot of a middle-aged man with daddy issues which never succumbs to sentimentality or a need to tie up emotional voids. Meanwhile, Richardson is absolutely sublime in a part that could have played like the typical manic pixie dream girl. Instead, Casey is a young woman still figuring herself out; intelligent, stubborn, wide-eyed when it comes to her love of architecture, and insecure about her worth. It's a major performance in a major American film.
Art can both heighten and alienate. The architecture seen throughout Columbus inspires both transcendence and casual apathy. For Casey, it's a window into a larger world. For Jin, it's a reminder for all of the ways in which a father can ignore his own child. For Kogonada, art is about balance--finding the razors edge between intellect and emotion--and allowing the camera an opportunity to take in the enormity of a given space. Columbus is a moving and humane film, inspiring both intellectual curiosity and tugging at the deepest of human emotions. It speaks through hushed conversations, knowing glances, and the recurring images of asymmetrical buildings jutting out from behind trees. It is, above all else, a work of art encouraging us to look a second and third time around us. Perhaps, we'll even slow down and learn something.