A mere 40 miles south of Indianapolis is the quirky city of Columbus, Indiana. In many ways Columbus is like any other modestly populated city – it has its schools, churches, and key industries as its financial backbone. But this city of 45,000 people sports one unique distinction. It is the home for an amazing variety of modernist art and architecture.
This provides the setting for the aptly titled film “Columbus” – the impressive debut feature from Kogonada. Known only by his first name, the Korean-born Kogonada previously worked as a video essayist spotlighting legendary auteurs from cinema’s rich history. A quick gander at his website reveals not just an understanding of his subjects (Bresson, Godard, Kubrick just to name a few) but also a genuine passion for their visions and techniques.
Kogonada brings that knowledge and affection to “Columbus” which he directed, wrote and edited. His appreciation for the city’s architectural heritage is just as evident and it’s captured in nearly every frame. Whether Kogonada is shooting Columbus City Hall, North Christian Church, Irwin Union Bank, or the Robert Stewart Bridge, he and cinematographer Elisha Christian use each modernist structure to subtly establish personality and emotion.
But this isn’t simply a Travel Channel city tour. Kogonada’s use of architecture is full of purpose, but the heart of the film is found in the two main characters – two polar opposites bruised by their own personal circumstances. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a Columbus native and recent high school graduate who works at the local library. She’s bright and ambitious but her dreams are tossed aside because of her obligations to her troubled mother (Michelle Forbes). Jin (John Cho) works as a literature translator in Korea but is called to Columbus after his estranged father falls into a coma.
Clearly influenced by Linklater’s “Before” trilogy and with the minimalist strokes of a Jarmusch film, the story has these two strangers meet and a relationship is slowly formed. Similar to Jesse and Celine in “Before Sunrise”, Casey and Jin are cracked open through a series of conversations that occur as the two stroll across Columbus. Between their musings on Saarinen, Pei, and Weese are the more personal and revealing exchanges that gradually endear them more to each other and to us.
While the framework may not sound highly original, the film avoids all of the traditional story beats you might expect. It’s sometimes tempting to allow our expectations to get ahead of a story, but Kogonada doesn’t leave much room for that. There is always a hint of uncertainty with these two characters and their unique relationship. This leaves the audience guessing.
One thing that differentiates “Columbus” from the “Before” films are the scenes when Casey and Jin are apart. More than mere filler, these moments give form to the conversations the two have together. We get a better understanding of Casey through her modest and worrisome home life with her mom or her discussions with her neurotic friend and co-worker Gabriel (nicely played by Rory Culkin). For Jin its the quiet alone time wrestling with how he should be feeling or reflections with his father’s longtime assistant (Parker Posey). These scenes are elegantly composed and never feel false or contrived.
But the most potent ingredients are the two lead performances. Cho is a natural at subtlety – somber, reserved and authentic at every turn. But it’s Richardson who steps out as a true revelation. She’s an incredibly expressive actress and we never see her overplay a scene or oversell an emotion. She conveys an effortless charm and sincerity that instantly captures our sympathies. It’s an eye-opening performance.
There is a soulful longing in both Casey and Jin – two hurting people from very different places forced to put their lives on the back burner. In one scene Kogonada has them wrestle with the question – is there a healing power to architecture? What seems like an absurdity may not be so far-fetched. It’s architecture that first connects these two wounded souls and it lingers in the background during each of their conversations.
Perhaps Kogonada’s camera answers that question for us. There is a therapeutic quality to his perspectives. His camera rarely moves and he communicates plenty through every carefully composed shot. And while “Columbus” highlights the allure of architecture, it just as much showcases the fine art of cinema in what is one of the most striking debuts in decades. Kogonada is a filmmaker to watch.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS