To succeed in architecture, one must master space – both positive and negative – and learn to assemble small, stationary parts into a large, stable construction. The same is true for filmmakers, although we often forget it thanks to most movie’s frenetic, haphazard camerawork.
But writer-director Kogonada hasn’t forgotten the connection between architecture and film. He understands it so well, in fact, that he has chosen it as the theme for his first feature, Columbus.
Set in Columbus, Indiana, a small city known for its influential modern architecture, the film is minimalist in style but not in content. Indeed, if you can sink into the movie’s calming pace and meditative music, you will discover meaning. And much like the city’s architectural transparency and openness, the importance of its subjects is plain to see.
Casey is fresh from high school and trying to decide whether to leave her hometown to study architecture or stay with her mother, whom she is fiercely protective of thanks to her mom’s recent drug addiction. (The town is mostly known for “meth and modernism,” Casey says.) But despite her mental conflict, Casey seems strangely content to work at the library and take daily pilgrimages to her favorite modern buildings, which, like her, have little to hide. Mirroring those serene glass structures, Casey has a sweetness, simplicity and openness that is instantly attractive. And relative newcomer Haley Lu Richardson (Split, The Edge of Seventeen) perfectly embodies those characteristics.
Into this world comes Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American who finds himself in Columbus after his father, a well-known architectural scholar, is taken ill while on a lecturing tour. After the illness progresses to a permanent coma that necessitates his confinement to his hospital bed, Jin is stuck in Columbus, awaiting the inevitable. But against all odds, he meets and strikes up a friendship with the much younger Casey.
Casey is initially excited about meeting someone who, like her, appreciates architecture, a topic she says is wasted on most of the townspeople. But though his father is famous in the field, Jin is seemingly as uninterested as the average Columbus citizen, preferring to discuss what motivates Casey emotionally rather than intellectually or artistically.
“I’m just like everyone here,” Jin tells Casey. “I grow up around something and it feels like nothing.”
But instead of reflecting Jin’s true feelings, that statement is a glimpse into his personality. While Casey is an airy, open, modern building, Jin is a Victorian stone structure. It will take some effort to get inside. And, fittingly, it takes some time to warm to Cho. Not nearly as compelling as Richardson, Cho is nevertheless intermittently interesting in an understated way – and worlds away from his performances in the abysmal Harold & Kumar movies.
Parker Posey, as the publicist of Jin’s father, is a minor but effective addition, as is Rory Culkin (Macaulay Culkin’s brother) as Casey’s co-worker. Though the latter’s part is also small, it’s his speech about the “crisis of attention vs. crisis of interest” that sets the film’s tone.
“Are we losing interest in things that matter?” he asks Casey. “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”
Those questions are worth contemplating when action movies that resemble video games gain larger audiences than mature movies like Columbus. Admittedly, Kogonada paces his film almost too methodically and makes some odd, even frustrating, choices concerning what not to show. Some might even label the film “slight” or accuse the screenplay of being occasionally adrift. It will, therefore, disappoint some viewers, but Columbus is still an impressive and sometimes mesmerizing directorial debut.
It’s also a film that is self-aware, as when Casey wonders aloud whether Jin’s father will recover. “This isn’t a movie,” Jin responds. “Nothing’s gonna happen.” He might as well be nodding toward the camera, a camera that, in a style reminiscent of Japanese master filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, barely budges for 100 minutes.
The only noticeable tracking shot, in fact, comes when Jin meets Casey. The camera follows them as they walk on opposite sides of a fence, sharing a cigarette, reminiscent of scenes in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. Then the fence opens up, allowing them to observe each other unencumbered, just as the film is challenging us to stop, relax and contemplate the quiet yet unexpectedly beautiful lives of its characters.