The misplaced souls in Kogonada’s Columbus Discover fame in Indiana’s structure
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In Columbus, architecture takes the place of emotions, sometimes with astonishing effect. Kogonada’s directorial debut is an outwardly cool, decidedly static film, which nevertheless finds spice in the most surprising places. Kogonada’s directorial debut does a few important things so well that I can’t help but forgive what it doesn’t. (The Korean-born filmmaker likes to call himself Kogonada. We don’t know his first name, but he’s not exactly a stranger: he has been posting fascinating video essays about cinema online for some time.)
The story is as thin as a whisper, and above all, that’s a good thing: When his legendary professor father ends up in a coma, Jin (John Cho) comes to the small town of Columbus, Indiana – a veritable cornucopia of modernist architecture, its landscape with buildings that designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese – to take care of him. One day, over a cigarette, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), an architecture lover who works in a library branch designed by IM Pei. Both have family ties to this Midwestern city: Casey worries about what leaving college would mean for her mother, a recovering addict, while duty and tradition force Jin to stand by his father’s side.
But the drama doesn’t lie so much in the interactions between Jin and Casey as in the improbable and unreal backdrop against which they bond. Kogonada transforms the rooms of his film into expressive elements. The huge red brick library where Casey works becomes a place of repetition and capture. The shiny and huge central tower of a suspension bridge on the other side feels like a transmitter to the divine. The facade of Columbus City Hall, with two cantilevered walls that approach but never quite meet, creates an enchanting opening that, through Kogonada’s camera, conveys a sense of unattainable metaphysical yearning.
It’s not just these great achievements of modernity that the director uses so effectively. There’s also the plush, carefully overloaded interior of Jins Hotel, which should be inviting but feels unwelcoming. There’s the humble house Casey lives in, which seems to be lit dramatically different every time we see it. And there is the narrow alley that seems to be saying something new every time the camera goes back there. It doesn’t matter if it was built by a famous person or if it’s just a coincidence of urban planning – in the eyes of this director it’s all emotional architecture, the nooks and crannies of longing and sadness.
But while this novel, intriguing approach to space might be the most notable, or most immediately interesting element of Columbus, it is Richardson’s beautiful performance that makes the film. She gives this bright, confused, gentle girl the presence and depth you can feel in the movie’s opening scene when Casey asks her crush (Rory Culkin) if he’d like to go to the movies that night. The interplay of casualness and tenderness on her face is haunting and completely natural. It would be easy to cover up such a moment to completely upset the balance and rhythm of the scene, but Richardson doesn’t. She avoids acting tics or looking at me. The feelings are there when you want to see them. (The same could be said about architecture.)
Columbus is so good at filling its gaps, filling throwaway moments and silent gestures with depth that it loses steam when it tells us dialog scenes or banal stories. The conversations between Casey and Jin are usually awkward and spell out too much of what we already know from the filmmaking and the performances. There’s even a part in them when they talk about the emotional valence of modernist architecture just in case you really weren’t paying attention.
The actors do what they can with their lyrics, but it’s not their performance that moves us; it’s their looks and their physicality and the graphic contrast between Casey’s soft features and Jin’s hard, angular face with his sharp chin and high cheekbones and almost angular hair. (Cho does wonders with the character’s restraint, though he ultimately cedes the limelight – as he must – to his co-star.) I understand that if I ask for less talk, I will end up with this already quite artsy and beautiful movie demand even more artistic and maybe even a little alienating. But the power of what works in Columbus tells me that Kogonada and his cast members could achieve something like this. These two leads, whenever together, create their own ecosystem that makes words meaningless.
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