There are many artistic avenues available for taking audiences into the lives of others and film offers the most direct and intense of those experiences. You can enter another person’s life in ways that other art forms cannot hope to achieve as talented filmmakers can get audiences to parse the most complex of emotions with ease if the world they construct or present screen is just right. Columbus is a great example. The film is named after the titular town located in Indiana, which is famous for having the largest collection of public buildings designed by Modernist architects such as I.M. Pei, John Carl Warnecke, and Richard Meier. Using a script full of neat symmetry for the main characters, the pleasures of architecture, and pleasurable dialogue, director Kogonoda concisely gets to the heart of a complex set of relationships.
The foundations of the story lie with a meeting outside the grand Victorian-style hotel Korean-American Jin (John Cho) is staying in. He has arrived in Columbus from Seoul to look after his estranged father, an admired architecture professor who has fallen into a coma on the eve of a lecture. Pretty much alone and isolated in town, he experiences something akin to culture shock as he wrestles with being away from work and looking after a man he hasn’t spoken to in over a year. During one phone call with “home”, he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) who was planning on attending the lecture. This bright and intelligent 19-year-old graduated from high school a year ago but has taken on part-time work as a librarian to look after a troubled mother, having convinced herself this is the right path instead of pursuing her own dreams. Meeting over cigarettes shared over a fence, Casey and Jin talk. It’s small stuff at first. He hates being in Columbus while she genuinely likes it. He’s not fond of architecture while she believes in its power to change people. She tries to win him over by telling him about the town. Teasing and uneasiness turns into a form of connection and their world expands little by little as the conversation flows between the two and they recognize shared problems with errant parents and filial piety.
The town is the main stage and their conversations form the set pieces of the film. Through natural and engaging dialogue we find out how the narrative trajectories of Jin and Casey mirror each other as they embark on random excursions and the film turns into a Richard Linklater-like drama. It’s down to the architecture providing weighty subjects for them to tunnel into and out of as we get past the “how” and “when” historical aspects of a building’s creation to the more soulful “why” something was created.
The buildings are given enough screen time to show off their characteristics in documentary-like fashion, sort of mini Frederick Wiseman-esque scenes as we are led on a tour and observe people in these spaces. More importantly for the story, they act as steps leading Casey and Jin outside of their emotional enclosures. Fenced in by cultural expectations such as what it’s like to be Korean in America and the draw of being back in Korea, and the burden of expectation placed on young women by the people in their lives, their surroundings essentially act as a natural bridge for them to discuss deeper personal issues, allowing them to survey the gaps in their emotional histories, and tear down facades of happiness they have erected before shoring up their resolve to try and do something to renovate their lives. It is all down to the characters reacting to their environments and it’s never contrived, it is always analytical, amusing, and moving.
Audience attention will be rooted on to the actors who have a magnificent chemistry as they discuss weighty topics and deepen their relationship with every conversation. There is a natural friendship at work on screen as the two spark off each other, playfully and in conflict, whilst also helping each other with comfort and advice. Cho as Jin is effortlessly cool and distant, albeit a little cynical, but this hides a warm layer. Richardson is the perfect foil, an earnest and hopeful but also realistic young woman slowly succumbing to her lack of ambition but burning away with passion and confusion over what is the right step to take in her life. These two personalities mesh well and we see every smile or look of upset during conversations and believe it and also believe the changes they undergo.
What emerges between the two is a tastefully depicted platonic romance based on mutual concerns with architecture forming the central pillar the narrative is built around. It flows effortlessly with Cho and Richardson’s excellent performances complemented by the strong supporting cast who create characters with their own dreams and regrets. It is also bolstered by Kogonada’s fantastic direction which frames the locations perfectly, often in long shot with the conversations acting as narration so we understand what we are looking at but also how people interact with places so we see how different effects such as lighting and sound can influence a person. Kogonada’s scene composition and blocking acts symbolically to show the positions of relationships: how people walk alongside one another symmetrically, blocked by a fence until there is a gap which they can cross to be together, how Jin can spread his arms on a bench behind Casey with it being nonchalant and caring, how walking around a hexagonal space, something which forces people to look at each other, in a tracking shot talking about religion leads them to deeper issues, and how they may cross a bridge to some sort of understanding. It is never pretentious. It feels natural.
This indie feature is worth watching for the weight of intelligence brought to form and theme and how they are constructed on screen. But it never loses sight that cinema is about life as it has characters that we care about thanks to terrific performances and great writing. You will be glad to have entered the story, to have taken time looking around the locations, and to have spent time with interesting people. So much so that you will likely feel a little broken-hearted when you leave town.
Columbus received its Japanese premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 13 and was also shown on March 18.