Quite often during my first viewing of first-time writer-director Kogonada’s debut feature Columbus, I found myself transfixed, almost not believing that I was watching a film in which the visual emphasis was on architecture specifically and spacial representation in general.
We not only get elegantly shot moments set among a great number of structures (both interiors and exteriors) in the Indiana town of Columbus, where
a great many renowned architects agreed to design and build representations of their work, but we’re treated to intelligent conversations about architecture both from characters who have spent their entire lives immersed in structural design and other young admirers whose fresh perspectives might make them equally equipped to speak at length on the subject. It’s a fascinating approach to storytelling from a filmmaker who previously was a film critic and video essayist, specializing in particular Asian masters such as Yasujirō Ozu.
The film opens with the collapse of an architecture professor visiting Columbus to give a speech. His son, Jin (played by John Cho), races from his home in South Korea to be at his father’s side in the hospital, where he is in a coma, and ends up stuck in Columbus for an extended stay. Almost inevitably, he runs into a budding young library employee/would-be architecture enthusiast named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson from Edge of Seventeen), who has lived in the town her whole life, and, although she desperately would like to leave to study somewhere else, her emotional attachment to her drug-addict mother (Michelle Forbes) has a tight grip on her.
Jin and Casey have a series of conversations that actually turn into a sweet, mostly innocent, friendship that in any other movie might turn romantic. But Kogonada actually cares about what they’re saying (go figure) and refuses to disrupt the sanctity of their bond, which is intimate without being overly saccharine. When they’re apart, their conversations with others carry a closeness that seem far more forced.
Jin meets his father’s colleague (and his former crush) Eleanor (an energetic Parker Posey), while Casey keeps company with a grad student and gifted speaker Gabriel (Rory Culkin), who likely has a thing for her. And while these interactions are entertaining, they don’t carry the emotional weight, or the spacial reverence, of Jin’s time with Casey. She makes him feel a connection to architecture in a way a lifetime with his father never did.
All the while, we’re aware of their surroundings. When outdoors, the buildings in the background are more than a simple backdrop, and we’re always aware that there is life inside these structures and people going about their days. Columbus is a film worth seeing more than once; the first viewing, you’ll take it all in, while further showings allowing time to concentrate on the surroundings and the way that conversations about buildings could just as easily focus on human relationships. It’s a bold effort, both visually and in terms of how much talking Kogonada believes we’re willing to listen to in a movie. But when the writing is this strong and the conversation about something interesting, it’s not as much of an endurance test as you might think.
In the end, Columbus is about what gives a town its meaning and its soul. Some would say the people, but the subjects of this story might tell you it starts with the buildings, which in turn give the citizens a place to work and live, activities that result in enriching our souls if done right. This is one of the year’s most interesting and captivating works.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Writer-director Kogonada will be taking part in Q&As (hosted by yours truly) at the Music Box on Friday, Sept. 8, after the 7pm show (which is sold out), and Saturday, Sept. 9, after the 4:15 screening. For details and tickets, go to the Music Box Theatre website.