Columbus, Indiana: an unlikely mecca of modernist architecture, and an equally unlikely muse for one of the most enticing indies of the year. Heaps of films wax poetic about New York, Los Angeles, or Paris, many of them brilliant. But the small-town elegies — films like Columbus or last year’s Paterson, set in mid-size, easily forgotten cities — can be even more absorbing in their supreme intimacy. Writer-director Kogonada, who until now has been best known for making analytical video essays for Sight and Sound and the Criterion Collection, is one to keep an eye on.The luxe cinematography, compelling script, and strong lead performances make this debut feature tender, lovely, and completely worth your time.
Columbus is about Jin (John Cho), an American living in Korea who returns to Columbus when his estranged father is hospitalized, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local with a passion for architecture who spends her post-high school days working at a library and caring for her mother (Michelle Forbes). Jin’s father, a well-known architecture scholar, had been scheduled to give a talk that Casey planned to attend; Jin and Casey strike up a conversation after she offers him a cigarette and they fall into an easy friendship. As the film unfolds, Casey leads Jin around town on a meandering architecture tour, pointing out her favorite buildings as they slowly begin to open up to each other.
The camera captures their wanderings exactly as it should: there are crisp, precise shots that mimic the sometimes cold geometry of modernist architecture, but there are also shots that use warm light and naturalistic movement to soften it. The lingering static shots of the modernist landscape remind us to look, and see, and appreciate wondrous objects when we encounter them. All this adds up to a quietly beautiful film that, like its characters, probes the question of whether physical spaces have the power to heal. It’s also an absolute joy for architecture buffs, who can delight in the virtual tour of iconic buildings such as Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Conference Center, Miller House, and North Christian Church.
The frequent references to Saarinen — the Finnish American architect behind Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges as well as Ingalls Rink — is just one of the small details in the film that Yalies will appreciate. Yale School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke plays a significant (if unseen) role as a mentor and role model to Casey. In the world of the film, Berke struck up a friendship with Casey when she visited Columbus to give a talk, and eventually extends her an offer: admission to the University of New Haven and an internship with her firm in New York. The question of whether Casey will take her up on it is one of the plot’s driving forces.
Because fundamentally, Columbus is a coming of age film. The central question is whether Casey, feeling beholden to her damaged mother, will linger on in Columbus, or if she’ll go off to college to study architecture and become part of what she idolizes. Jin, meanwhile, struggles with his ambivalence towards his father, unsure whether he even wants him to get better. But it’s the relationship between Casey and Jin that gets the most focus. Their dynamic is fascinating, and built around pushback. When Casey rattles out facts about a building she loves, Jin tells her bluntly that he’s bored, and instead asks why she loves it and what it makes her feel. When she alludes to a rocky past, he pushes her to confront it rather than tamp it down. Casey in turn pushes against Jin’s superficial detachment from his father, from the town, and from most things. There’s a strong sense that neither character is willing to let the other skate by on apathy or superficiality. It’s ambiguous whether we’re meant to read romance between the 19-ish Casey and fortysomething Jin, or if there’s a parental element, or if they’re simply unlikely friends, creating a dynamic that some may find problematic. But the ambiguity in some ways feels more poignant, never quite committing to either of the cliches the film suggests. This isn’t a coming-of-age tale about sexuality, anchored by a somewhat disturbing May-December romantic relationship. Nor is it exactly a wholesome, sanitized, Disney-appropriate surrogate father-daughter situation either. Instead, it’s complex and human and fluid, interesting to watch and genuinely touching.
Of course, part of why it works so well is that both lead actors are excellent. Richardson, a relative newcomer, captures Casey’s sharp intellect and buried vulnerability with grace. She has a luminous presence on screen that is deeply sympathetic and beguiling. But perhaps more striking is John Cho, an extremely talented actor whose best-known work thus far has mostly been limited to raunchy comedies, one-season wonder TV shows, and Star Trek. Cho is fantastic in the leading role of Jin: charming, complex, world-weary, sexy, and probing. It’s the kind of weighty, dramatic leading role that Cho deserves to see more of, if and when Hollywood gets over its pathological refusal to cast Asian actors as main protagonists.
Refreshingly, Jin’s ethnicity is neither central to the plot nor entirely glossed over. We hear him speaking Korean and complaining about the business culture of Seoul, but nothing about him is stereotypical for an Asian character: he’s neither a sexless nerd nor an exotified villain. Instead, he’s nothing more or less than a complex human character, whose ethnic identity is part of him but by no means defines him.
Ultimately, Columbus is a deft and touching film that is partially about art, but mostly about people. Kogonada uses the lens of architecture to explore deeply human questions: what does it mean to be connected to something? How do we put down roots in a place, or with another person? What impact do physical spaces have on interpersonal relationships? It is beautifully made, insightful, inventive, and lovely to watch, and one of the most exciting debuts to come out of the festival circuit in a while.