Composing the shots with care and navigating the symmetry in the environment and the lives of the characters, Kogonada debuts with a feature that makes a thundering impact with its calmness and contemplative nature.
When Jin’s (John Cho) father, an architecture professor, falls ill before giving a talk in a small city in Indiana, he rushes to the city to stay by his parent’s side. On his first days, he tries to find himself in America (he migrated to Korea, settling down there and working as a translator) and reconnect to the estranged father that he hasn’t spoken to in a while. Bumping into a curious young woman Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) begins a friendly, attentive exchange that continues throughout the film as the protagonists share the weight of their everyday struggles and get to know each other.
A third protagonist in the film, the architecture becomes a factor that connects many dots scattered on the map. And it’s for a very good reason: Columbus, the city where the story takes place, is renowned for its modernist architecture. The writer-director takes full advantage of that and experiments with depicting it in many ways; the film’s cinematographer Elisha Christian transforms his vision into the surprising angles, reflections that camera focuses on, grids and patterns, symmetry and colour pairings. Besides the eye-pleasing aesthetic, it also provides a space that the characters are emotionally connected to, unfurling the conversations in the carefully arranged interiors and in the abandoned corners visited at night. The spaces that connect functional areas with elegant, cold glass and concrete pieced together are filled with people and accessible – they’re warmed up by interactions that take place around them. Kogonada captures the spirit of the place and the attachment it can evoke, giving it an opportunity to speak about feelings that run much deeper.
The complexity of exteriors is matched by the breadth of emotions that fill it. Both protagonists are trapped in majestic structures of Columbus. Both of them toy with the idea of escaping them, but the choice seems too difficult to make even if they’re plagued by doubts. Casey stays in the small town to take care of her mum, pushing the thoughts of her own education, career and dreams to the back of her head. Jin’s father never “stopped for him”, yet his illness awakened a sense of duty for his son. The characters succumb to their responsibility, temporarily pushing their own wants and needs away. That helps them to bond despite their age difference and life experiences attached to that gap. Yet, they aren’t alienated in the town either: both of them have their friends, “support networks” that are also somewhat symmetrical to each other – Eleanor (Parker Posey) is always there for Jin, while Gabriel (Rory Culkin) shyly makes a move on Casey time after time. The whole picture depicts the relationship between the characters and the city they found themselves in much like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
It’s a joy to watch their relationship deepen, as they accept their quirks and frustrations and build solid foundations for their friendship that releases them from their everyday concerns. Their talks are somewhat soothing and therapeutic; there’s also plenty of space for the director to draw parallels in their lives and justify their connection by the similarities they find in each other despite the things that separate them. The conversations that the characters have with each other feel continuous, like an overnight talk that stretches out without ever running out of topics – the kind that allows you to get to know the other person in depth. Although the story stretches over several days and locations, their confessions and realisations feel like a part of a carefully designed whole, naturally ebbing and flowing between the sequences.
John Cho channels the character’s calmness and depth of experience with an innate flair to cast the depths of the inner turmoil onto the environment and into the words he speaks. From the outset, it’s clear to us his world is not confined to the place he’s temporarily inhabiting, but we’re drawn to the motivations that keep him in one place. Haley Lu Richardson brings enthusiasm and wide-eyed naivety to her character – Casey draws us in with her optimistic attitude that allows her to stay positive, even if her intellect and curiosity keep her questioning for the wider world “out there” she could find if she ever dared to leave.
Incredibly observant and carefully composed, Columbus draws us in not only with its ace visuals but also with the warmth and natural flair for capturing conversations. Putting it together like scattered pieces of the puzzle and indulging in the wealth of brilliant shots unveils a cinematic picture of daily life, focused on the smallest of things that make it comforting and anchored in the relationships that keep us afloat.
Columbus opens in the UK on the 5th of October 2018.
- Columbus (2018)