“Columbus”—Film Review

by on August 8, 2017

Kogonada’s debut feature “Columbus” well earns its praise for being poetic and enigmatic but never static.  This gorgeously meditative film opens the viewer’s eyes to the everyday beauty that the psychic detritus of everyday routine blinds us to.

The film’s setting of Columbus, Indiana may be the hometown of Vice President Mike Pence.  But the small town of 45,000’s real claim to fame lies elsewhere.  This “Athens of the Midwest” is home to over 70 modernist architectural and public art treasures designed by such folk as Eero Saarinen, Henry Moore, and James Stewart Polshek.  Among the architectural treasures seen throughout the film are the Miller House and Garden, the North Christian Church, and the Columbus Gateway Arch.  Columbus’ architectural treasures turn out to be characters in the film.

“Columbus”’ human lead characters come from two very different worlds.  30-ish Jin (John Cho) is a South Korea-based translator who’s come to this Midwestern town thanks to a family emergency.   His father, a renowned architecture scholar on a speaking tour, has collapsed and fallen into a coma.   The translator hasn’t talked to his father in over a year.  Yet despite his estrangement, Jin guiltily worries about lacking family loyalty and devotion.

19-year-old Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a Columbus native.   Despite a year having passed since graduating high school, her life is stuck in limbo despite her very strong interest in architecture.  Fellow library worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin) has an interest in Casey.  But Casey’s main emotional connection is to her working class mother Maria (Michelle Forbes).  The older woman has gotten clean again after recovering from a meth addiction.  Maria’s daughter, though, worries that without her stabilizing presence, her mother will slide back into addiction.

The scene where Jin and Casey meet for the first time shows how Kogonada takes these and other common story elements and transforms them into something unique.  The racial difference between the two characters is acknowledged by Casey’s mistaken assumption that Jin doesn’t speak English.  But calling the library worker on her racist assumption doesn’t solely define the duo’s relationship.

The subsequent conversation between Jin and Casey would not have worked had Kogonada used this scene as the first opportunity to make Columbus’ architecture a character.  The director’s long tracking shot follows the visitor and the native as they walk and talk along opposite sides of a wall until they reach the inevitable gap.  But since the director showed the town’s beauty from the opening shot, any eye-rolling at thudding obviousness gets transformed into understated notice while paying more attention to watching Jin and Casey connect.

Yet that connection among Jin, Casey, and Columbus’ architecture turns out to be a rarity.  As Casey explains, most of her fellow townspeople do not have “step back and smell the roses” moments towards the town’s modernist architecture.  Daily exposure to these buildings might have dulled Columbus residents’ senses.  Or else architecture is just not something that registers as a contact on the townies’ aesthetic radars.

Yet one of Kogonada’s subtle points is that you don’t have to be an architecture scholar or even a tour guide to speak passionately about architecture.  In one memorable sequence, Casey explains to Jin her positive feelings about a particular building…yet the viewer never hears her obviously enthusiastic answer.   Instead, that silent moment speaks volumes about Jin’s relationship with his father vs. his relationship with Casey.  The father would probably have regarded Jin’s question as incomprehensible or not very interesting, an attitude that would have fueled their estrangement.  The joy and interest Casey displays on her face, by contrast, does give Jin (and by extension the lay viewer) a sense of the passion this art form evokes.

Kogonada’s contemplative images and story pacing will not interest those who prefer their cinematic storytelling to be overly direct and rapidly conveying of story information.  Describing such viewers as having “short attention spans” will not be on more patient viewers’ lips after seeing Gabriel explain to Casey why the phrase is a misnomer.

Yet as Kogonada’s beautiful image of a hospital wing that seems part of a verdant forest shows, there is pleasure to be found in deciphering the ideas or feelings made concrete in architecture.  Stone, glass, and steel are artfully arranged to embody aspirations to transcendence or balancing power and openness.  Even shots of the interior of Casey’s home convey a sense of both living and quiet hopes of obtaining more from life.

For a town whose major buildings embrace the future, it’s ironic that “Columbus”’ main characters are trapped by their pasts.  Jin’s emergency visit to Columbus is tainted by both his lingering resentment towards his father and his secret crush towards his father’s colleague Eleanor (Parker Posey).  Casey’s memories of Maria’s past breakdowns prevent her from seizing an architecture professor’s suggestion to go to college to truly pursue her interest in architecture.

Yet the name Columbus also alludes to exploration and discovery.  Jin and Casey do discover emotional truths about themselves.  However, Kogonada has little love for directorially highlighting these discoveries in the cinematic equivalent of 40-foot billboards.  Crucial dialogue or moments instead get delivered in low-toned dialogue or off-screen allusions.

Giving an Asian-American actor a good role which eschews stereotype or cliché should be a no-brainer.  But Cho takes full advantage of the opportunity offered by Kogonada, who also wrote the script, to show that his character’s bond with Richardson’s character rests on troubled relationships with parents and love of architecture.  Cho’s performance promises thriving in similar parts.

A rare “Columbus” moment of abstract beauty comes from seeing Casey dancing by herself in front of her car’s headlights.  Another is seeing the landscape Jin’s father stared at before he collapsed.  Neither moment jars in the context of the film.  Columbus may be a place where abstract desires can be given form and solidity.  Yet there are some desires that don’t yield to concrete embodiment.

(“Columbus” opens August 11, 2017 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas (601 Van Ness Avenue, SF.))

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