Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Quite often it’s easy for indie films to slip through the cracks created by huge blockbuster movies, particularly if there isn’t a well-known name behind the project. It would take good word-of-mouth and reviews to bring said indies out of obscurity and into the wider public eye. Columbus is just one of those movies, a small American-made debut from a director most known for his video essays. Although it has generally reviewed very favourably, it hasn’t been given a wide release (at least not in the UK). Is it more deserving of a wider audience, or is another small offering we can easily let pass us by?
Set in Columbus, Indiana (and filmed there), two characters from completely different walks of life briefly find their lives intertwining unexpectedly thanks to a mutual interest and disinterest in architecture. Casey (Richardson) works in a library and for a while has dreamed of becoming an architect. Her mother, Maria (Forbes), is a recovering drug addict, and Casey has taken it upon herself to care for her and ensure she’s there throughout Maria’s recovery, putting her own dreams aside. On the other side we have Jin (Cho), a Korean-American working as a book translator in South Korea. Jin reluctantly makes a trip back to America due to his famous architect father having had a serious stroke. Casey and Jin’s meeting is purely chance, as she briefly sees him leaving the hospital and then happens upon him again later on, when she makes an educated guess that he’s the son of the renowned architect who was due to give a talk that she was to attend. The two regularly meet to discuss their lives and the positive and negative effects that architecture has had on them, both the subject and actual structures. As they get to know each other they also start to realise a lot about themselves, eventually leaving them thinking twice about their own situations.
As mentioned, this is writer/director Kogonada’s first feature film, having really only produced video essays on other filmmakers in the past. An essayist, much like a critic (as Kogonada has also been), looks deep into things (in theory), trying to look past what’s on the surface into the meaning behind it, which can often provide more questions than answers. This reflects massively in Columbus. Kogonada has proven himself to be someone who sees beyond the obvious, and making architecture his silent protagonist provided him with the perfect window through which to present his findings which relate to Jin and Casey’s lives; the film is another type of video essay, if you will. The buildings themselves may not make you feel much, if anything, on first glance, but Kogonada’s close work with Cho and Richardson on creating characters that act as conduits for understanding the way architecture can make one feel is purely unique and almost indescribable. It might make you think more about architecture in an emotional sense (this might not apply to every building, but certainly older architecture and more ‘artistic’-looking modern builds).
The same applies hugely to Kogonada’s collaboration with his D.P, Elisha Christian. The framing of every scene is virtually the same, appearing almost appropriately brick-like, stationary and with no particular angles or quick editing, but what we see within the frame is almost always very aesthetically pleasing. At times it makes us as an audience feel like we are literally a part of the furniture, or embedded in the walls of the buildings, bringing a whole new (literal) meaning to ‘walls have ears’. Columbus is not only interesting for architecture buffs but also a great study for cinematography enthusiasts. Diana Rice’s production design also compliments the architecture at times, and juxtaposes it and the story where necessary: Casey’s pure enjoyment for certain buildings that are pleasing to the eye are a world away from her run-down car that often refuses to start. But through Rice, Christian and Kogonada’s vision we can see beauty in the most unlikely of places, such as Casey’s home. It doesn’t take much to be able appreciate what we’re shown onscreen.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that buildings were designed by people who work from a creative mind that, more often than not, is stimulated by emotion; it’s an art form that is so easy to dismiss, particularly if we see the same thing day-in, day-out. As Jin says during one of his and Casey’s talks, ‘You grow up around something, it feels like nothing.’ It’s as poignant a line as they come, simple but effective. The architectural journey we’re taken on as an audience absolutely raises more questions than answers, questions we are often afraid to ask as they force us to look at ourselves. Through Jin and Casey we see how these questions are applied to their lives: Jin wonders why Casey can’t follow her dreams and still sticks by her mother, and Casey wonders why Jin is so emotionally detached (on the surface) from his father. They are realistic to a fault in their own lives but impose a positive outlook on each other’s, which is something we’re all guilty of. Their idealistic characteristics often reflect in the architecture they discuss. Even if they don’t end up with answers, perhaps they feel all the better for meeting each other and laying it all bare, as strangers in movies often do in something of a therapeutic release.
Cho and Richardson truly make quite the captivating pair when on-screen together, even when their dialogue is minimal there is so much to be read between the lines. Although Casey and Jin’s relationship is platonic for the most part, their connection goes deeper than a surface-level friendship, which is rather in-keeping with the film’s theme of going beyond what we see and understanding how it makes us feel. Cho’s performance is what we would come to expect of such a seasoned (and good) actor; just his very presence and body-language is at times enough for us to grasp what’s going on in Jin’s head, particularly when he takes work calls and speaks in Korean. We don’t need to know what’s being said to understand how he’s feeling. The same goes for Richardson. Although she’s a relative newcomer (her most recent work in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split did not do her abilities justice), she owns her scenes as Casey and is incredibly nuanced when trying not to reveal too much of herself verbally to Jin. When the two are together they complement each other perfectly. Culkin supporting as Casey’s friend Gabriel provides another side to Casey’s life, however he could have done with being a bit more simplistic; we get a lot to think about just from Jin and Casey, so Gabriel’s prattling about attention span versus interests, whilst possibly supportive to subtext, gets to be a bit much on top of everything else. Posey, on the other hand, is like an adult version of Casey (which is even noted by Jin as one point) but to a less overthinking degree. She balances Jin out nicely when he needs a figurative slap.
Despite feeling fairly heavy at times (those prone to an existential crisis may want to prepare themselves), Columbus gets its point across in a way that really utilises the visual medium that cinema is supposed to be. Yes, the dialogue is strong and will captivate at times, but there are also moments of quiet that allow the audience to appreciate what is visible, whether it’s the architecture of the town, a character’s silent presence or the cinematography and scenery as a whole. It certainly deserves its audience and it’s a shame larger cinemas haven’t taken note, but it’s unsurprising, particularly considering what it would be up against currently. Kogonada’s first film is a strong debut, with a brilliant cast and a talented team behind it. He has shown himself to have a wonderfully artistic eye and a flair for writing, so it will be interesting to see what he can build in his next project.