Kogonada’s visual love letter to the architecture of a little known city is a triumph for the first time director and two captivating leads.
Having wowed during its preview at Sundance Film Festival last year, Columbus is the debut from South Korean video essayist come filmmaker Kogonada, who has made the often difficult transition from academic to artist with great ease and style to boot. To say that a city itself is a character in a film is often overused, but Kogonada has captured the heart of this most unusual of cities few will have heard of (most public buildings and landmarks were designed by Finnish-American modernist architect Eero Saarinen) and firmly placed it centre stage for this beautiful picture.
The simple plot sees Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American travel to Columbus, Indiana after his ailing father slips into a coma there on business. While soul searching about his own future as heir to the lauded architect, he meets teenager Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), similarly held hostage by responsibility; stuck between looking after her troubled mother and leaving home to pursue a career as an architect. As two people tied to the architectural world, Jin and Casey offer each other an insight into their contrasting lives as they spend a few days together wandering the city.
With a career as a translator, a complicated past with his father and carrying Korean cultural expectation, Jin finds himself an alien to the city, whilst the local Casey initially finds herself in the unusual position of knowledge for someone with so little life experience. They platonically share their life experiences as the role of mentor is passed to and fro like the cigarettes they share with one another. Rory Culkin provides some interesting dialogue in a supporting role as Casey’s colleague at the local library, while the choral yet ambient music of Hammock dresses the city very well. Even while indoors, birdsong, traffic and white noise are heard, suggesting a peaceful balance of nature and modern civilisation that runs throughout the film.
So significant is the city and landscape in this film that Cho and Richardson would be lucky to occupy a fraction of the screen in most scenes, often finding themselves talking over sustained shots of trees and buildings. The profound dialogue and panoramic vistas marry well together so that when the camera occasionally does decide to settle on a face, it really means something. The most significant exchange of the two taking place in a bridge symbolises the very transitory nature of their relationship and the film as a whole. The film finds its modernist heart as the two discuss American architect James Polshek’s notion that architecture should lend itself to healing, as they both yearn for escape from their respective shackles.
In short, Columbus is a conversation piece about life’s big decisions set against stunning backdrops from newcomer cinematographer Elisha Christian. Imagine Before Sunrise in concrete spattered midwestern America. The characters are wholly believable and expertly executed, Cho having recently proven his exceptional acting skills in Searching and Richardson in Support The Girls, the two able to comfortably talk pragmatically about life’s mundanities while still remaining interesting, and despite their brief encounter, sufficiently invested in each other’s uncertain future.