Columbus is a quiet, captivating debut

First-time filmmaker writes a love letter to modernist  architecture 

Academic-turned-filmmaker, Kogonada quietly reflects on the inscrutability of life in his feature-length debut titled Columbus. What else can we expect from an academic in Hollywood?

The resulting movie is a meandering reflection on architecture and its role in the lives of the film’s two leads, John Cho as Jin and Haley Lu Richardson as Casey. Despite its plodding and deliberate pacing, the film gives the viewer the space to experience the city of Columbus’ architecture and the nuanced relationships of the film’s two leads. 

Jin is an American transplant in Korea, working as a literary translator that has to return to the States to see his architect father who has fallen into a coma. Meanwhile, Casey is an aspiring architect that feels trapped in her surroundings as she cares for her mother, who’s a recovering addict.

Casey puts her life on hold for her mother, while Jin struggles to adequately grieve for his father, a man who was rarely there for his son. The film contrasts Western and Eastern parent-child relationships as both characters attempt to reconcile their past family lives. It’s a credit that the film gives a human treatment to these personal shortcomings, offering a restrained take on what could otherwise be melodrama. 

The tenderness that grows between Jin and Casey starts innocently enough, but it deepens as both characters attempt to grow out of their circumstances. Jin needed to see that love can exist between parent and child. Casey needed someone to challenge her to find discomfort by finally moving away from Columbus. 

Despite a compelling plot line, there are no major events in the narrative. The film doesn’t ask for an excessive emotional reaction from audiences to show nuance in what can feel like the blandness of day-to-day life. 

This can be partly attributed to the movie’s unabashed enthusiasm for the architecture affecting the characters’ lives. It’s a love letter to the form — it doesn’t matter if nothing really happens or changes in the story until the end.

The minimalist style of the film’s modernist architecture is reflected in the sparse, sober use of dialogue and action. This is a controlled film. 

Kogonado takes command in every aspect of Columbus, particularly in its narrative and cinematography, successfully expressing complex, abstract ideas.

Working with cinematographer Elisha Christian, Kogonado longed to refocus viewers’ interest in the facets of everyday life, which is mostly visualized through architecture. 

This unique, often static camera work creates a contemplative atmosphere, following people interacting with architectural space. The stillness and shallow depth of field emphasizes the dominating architecture that, despite our lack of interest, controls the way we move — metaphorically andliterally — in our daily lives.  People move, architecture guides. 

“When you grow up around something, it feels like nothing,” notes character Jin about his disinterest in architecture having his father work as a professor in the field.

It feels like nothing, but it does affect us. These physical constructions made a century ago continue to influence our interactions with the world. Columbus lets its viewers become aware of this involvement of the past in our everyday lives.

As a town that prides itself as an architectural haven, Columbus, Indiana, is important to Casey because its buildings have consoled her, especially in times of her mother’s heroin addiction. Jin, on the other hand, is uncertain about the city’s prominent architecture because it reminds him of the very thing his father loved more than him. 

Kogonada’s Columbus is thoughtful and mature, and is made so by its refusal to resolve any of the questions it’s dealing with. 

The film feels ordinary, unimpressive even, but if you look at the ordinary as something that isn’t ordinary at all, Columbus might just be a little more than impressive.

 

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