Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 8/4/17 (limited); 9/8/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 7, 2017
There is not much to the story or characters of Columbus, but neither of those elements is necessarily the film's point. There's a decided trajectory to this story, written by Kogonada, a film academic who is also making his directorial debut. The path is a twofold one, founded on the characters. One character is moving toward leaving the eponymous city in Indiana, whether or not she genuinely wants to, and the other is moving toward staying in this place, even though he definitely does not want that.
Along the way, their paths cross by chance and by choice. Kogonada shows both of those elements of their connection in a single shot of the two characters talking. There's an iron fence between them, and as they have their first conversation, they walk along the length of the fence. At the moment they introduce themselves to each other, they have arrived at an open gate.
The fence isn't just a thing to add visual interest to the shot. It becomes a central component of and complement to this moment between two strangers, who have little in common but much over which to bond. Fate has brought them together, but the decision to talk to each other is their own. The gate appearing at just right moment in the conversation might be another bit of happenstance. Who's to say that their conversation would have continued if the fence remained between them, with no obvious way to cross it?
The film is openly about architecture, from Kogonada's impeccably framed portraits of sights around this city, to one character's love of the art, to the other character's apathy toward it, and to the way that those differing opinions inevitably lead the two people to talk about it constantly. Architecture more or less saved Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a Columbus local who has delayed college for a year and seems prepared to delay it for the foreseeable future. It caused a lot of pain for Jin (John Cho), the son of a renowned academic in the field who clearly believes that his father loved well-designed structures more than his son.
Casey works at a local library, where she discusses academic options with her graduate degree-holding co-worker (played by Rory Culkin), who has a painfully apparent crush on her. She has stayed in the city because of her mother (played by Michelle Forbes), a recovering drug addict, whom Casey believes could not take care of herself. Considering how the mother avoids her daughter's phone calls and sneaks into the house after a long night out, we have to believe that Casey's help has become more suffocating than supportive.
Jin, who translates books from English into Korean, has come to Columbus from Seoul after his father collapsed in the Midwestern city before giving a lecture, which Casey was scheduled to attend. The father is in a coma, and even though he doesn't have much of a relationship with his old man, Jin has come to see the father through this medical episode. The son is secretly hoping that the father will die here without much fuss or overt mourning. Why should Jin put his life on hold for a man who never did the same for him?
These two characters are as different as can be, yet they both have something to offer. There's the company of another person in difficult times, of course, but it's more than just that. In Jin, Casey has someone to teach, as she takes him around the city to places on her list of favorite buildings there, and in whom to confide—someone who doesn't know about her family's history already, as it seems that everyone in town does. In Casey, Jin sees the enthusiasm for architecture that surely his own father possesses and someone who needs help that he can provide, thanks to father's connections. Unlike his father's colleague Eleanor (Parker Posey), who's more upset about the professor's condition than the man's own son, Casey is also someone who won't judge his feelings about his father, given her own problems with a parent.
Kogonada's near obsession with architecture in the film is what elevates this straightforward story and these fairly ordinary (and kind of self-absorbed) characters. It's more than simply a sight-seeing tour of an unlikely home to an assortment of Modernist designs, with towering and metallic steeples, open and inviting layouts, and concrete and stone bridges that are meant to be taken as actual bridges and metaphors for something else. The filmmaker's views of these structures are always static and often from a distance. It's the aesthetic beauty that matters most, and that, along with the history associated with these structures, seems to be Casey's understanding of the art form (There's a moment in which Jin asks her to explain why the design of a bank resonates with her on an emotional level, and Kogonada, somewhat strangely, omits her response).
The spaces and places themselves, though, are also empty and abandoned. They exist as landmarks—always present and never changing. One could say the same of Casey, in her going-nowhere existence in Columbus, and Jin, in his resolute feelings toward his father.
That's the ultimate way in which Kogonada's focus on architecture complements the story—as a reflection on the characters' respective dilemmas. There are a few moments in Columbus when the director ignores what's right in front of him, too, such as a moment of reconciliation, in which a building that the filmmaker has established as a metaphor for healing is just in the background. It's an apt metaphor, but it isn't the change and impermanence of life. Instead, Kogonada's camera observes some flowers near the characters' feet. That's more like it.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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