Columbus is the debut feature film from the South Korea-born director who goes by the name Kogonada. The name is a film-nerd nod to the writer of some of the greatest classics made by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, such as Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon. If you’re a film nerd too, you may know Kogonada from his hypnotically insightful video essays for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound magazine. He’s clearly a celluloid savant who’s pored over the work of cinema’s masters. But as Columbus shows from its opening shot until its very last one, he’s also got a real painter’s eye behind the camera. The film is a feast of stunningly composed shots. It isn’t just Ozu’s influence that can be felt. Another Criterion staple haunts it as well. Namely, Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian auteur whose films tend to place aching lost-soul characters amongst cold, austere architecture, emphasizing their inner loneliness and alienation.
Columbus is set in the small, architecturally significant town of Columbus, Indiana—a Midwestern mecca of modernist buildings designed by such mid-century heavyweights as Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Richard Meier. You could argue that these buildings, with their cool lines and sleek futurism, are the real stars of the movie. Without them, Columbus might feel like an above-average, minor-key Sundance drama about estranged fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Fortunately, Kogonada manages to tap into their visual power to enhance his slightly familiar story. John Cho (Sulu from the latest round of Star Trek films and, long ago, one half of the Harold and Kumar stoner duo) stars as Jin, a Korean book translator who is stranded in Columbus after his estranged architecture-professor father falls into a coma. He’s there to pay his dutiful respects and wait for this bookish stranger of a man to either regain consciousness or die.
While in town, he meets a bright teenage girl named Casey (newcomer Haley Lu Richardson), who has recently graduated from high school, but is sticking around Columbus working at a local library because she’s afraid to head off to college and leave her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes) on her own. These two both have their own semi-romantic confidants (Parker Posey for Cho and Rory Culkin for Richardson), but they soon form an unlikely platonic attachment based on their strained relationships with their parents and, of course, their complicated feelings about architecture—a subject they both have real opinions (good and bad) about.
With his heavy, caring eyes and easygoing charm, Cho gives Jin a real warmth and empathy. And Richardson, an actress who brings to mind a young Kathleen Turner and whose smile, when it comes, is like a rainbow after heavy weather, is a real discovery. She never feels like a character imagined for a script. Together, they give Kogonada’s film an undeniable intimacy and naturalism. Those who may not find the design of churches and banks (even groovy mid-century ones) to be loaded with heavy metaphysical significance or transcendent healing powers, may find the film’s lyrical long takes and architecture metaphors to be piled on a bit too high. But Kogonada uses space to great poetic effect. His video essays may have hinted at an artist with a gifted eye, but Columbus is proof that Kogonada also possesses heart and soul as well. B+