Kogonada demands that we stop and take it all in.
The best way to offer a critique of Columbus, written and directed by Kogonada, is by describing the following scene. John Cho’s Jin has been pulled to the city of Columbus, Indiana from his life in Korea because his father, a professor of architecture, has taken ill there. Many of the buildings in the small city are wonders of modernist design and draw academics like Jin’s father on missions of research. The structures are typically geometric and lacking decorative flourishes. The emphasis was on the shape and materials like glass, concrete and steel.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local part-time librarian who Jin has dubbed “an architecture nerd,” has inserted herself into Jin’s life and acts as his tour guide. She has a list of favorite buildings and offers Jin their official histories. One is the State Street Bank. When other banks were being designed like fortresses, State Street was made of glass to endow it with a sense of warmth and welcome. Standing in front of the bank, Jin prods Casey for more than just the textbook description about this building she professes to love. Like so many sons of distant fathers, he has come to despise his father’s life’s work and wants to know what this young woman could possibly find so moving about a building.
Slowly, Casey offers an explanation. She seems a bit chagrined to reveal her private thoughts, but Richardson’s expressions move from reluctance to unfettered joy while she answers Jin’s question. The brilliance of the scene is that we never hear her words. Kogonada shoots her monologue from behind the glass inside the bank. It is an extraordinary bit of secret keeping intended to jar the audience from our usual passivity. We are invading the intimacy between Jin and Casey and the metaphysical entity that is this film will protect some of their privacy.
For all its understatement, this is a work of art that begs to be dissected. It is the story of children mourning their parents. Jin’s father is dying and Jin is forced to reconcile with a lifetime’s worth of resentment that will never be resolved. Casey’s mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes), is a recovering meth addict. Casey has postponed college and a chance to intern with a prominent architect out of the mistaken notion that proximity will keep her mother clean. These traumas bind Jin and Casey and Cho and Richardson execute the relationship expertly. The desperate immediacy of their situations force the kind of friendship where hard truths can be told and both characters need hard truths to work through their separate grief. The inclusion of Forbes and Parker Posey as Jin’s father’s assistant, Eleanor, provides a satisfying lineage to the independent film boom of the 80s and 90s. They are familiar faces one is always happy to see and their work here is excellent.
Rory Culkin also appears as Gabriel, a full-time librarian engaged in a romantic slow burn with Casey. Like any librarian with an advanced degree, he has recently read an academic essay and wants to share it with Casey. The premise of the paper refutes our worries about attention span. It is not a crisis of attention span the world is dealing with, says Culkin in his monologue, but a crisis of interest. He asks if we are losing interest in things that matter, and in doing so states director Kogonada’s own concern about film as a medium.
We live in a time when it is possible to create any visual that can be imagined. There is software on our phones that can generate more resplendent special effects than the highest concept science fiction shows of twenty years ago. The effects often come at us kinetically, passing by before our eyes have a chance to grapple with what we have seen. Are we losing interest?
To illustrate how powerful a well-constructed frame can be, Kogonada made Columbus. Set in a city replete with modernist wonders, he shoots an adoring missive to the form. Every shot is a work of art, perfectly balanced or made slightly asymmetrical. In this city he has found one of the finest stages for actors to work and places his players as part of the perfection of geometric construction. He works with silences, allowing shots to linger so we have a chance to absorb the majesty of the settings. Reflective surfaces and the use of perspective become motifs, illuminating character moods and isolation. There is a scene between Cho and Posey played out through their reflections and it is the best use of mirrors since Enter the Dragon.
Kogonada demands that we stop and take it all in. Nothing is wasted. Everything in the frame is important. He is our tour guide through the private lives of his characters as well as the impressive public spaces of this small, Midwestern city. You may worry that there will be a cut before you can absorb what you’re looking at, but that cut is farther away than you’re used to. Columbus is art made to be appreciated. There is time to see everything.