In our Film Swap Challenge series, our reviewers assign each other films to write about: films that one writer enjoys or values, and the other writer hasn’t seen – and which might be slightly out of their comfort zone! Here, Kevin Wight is challenged to write about Columbus by Joel Thornton.
Few filmmakers in recent years have arrived as fully-formed as the enigmatic Korean-American writer and director Kogonada. The pseudonymous artist was formerly better known as a creator of visual essays on various aspects of filmmaking, and as a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and The Criterion Collection, but almost caused whiplash among critical heads with Columbus, a restrained, poetic and deeply passionate two-hander of two troubled souls finding structure and support in the modernist haven of the titular town.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young librarian who yearns to study away from home but is tethered to Columbus as she facilitates the continued recovery from addiction of her mother (Michelle Forbes). Jin (John Cho) is the estranged son of a renowned South Korean scholar who has collapsed while in town to deliver a lecture on architecture. The two meet over a cigarette and Casey is immediately interested in the visitor, as she is something of a local authority on the Mecca of modernist architecture that is her hometown and would have attended the lecture. Jin has no interest in architecture but welcomes the connection he makes with this intelligent and intellectually curious young acquaintance. The two bond as she shows him her favourite buildings and they begin to build their own mutual support.
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One of the many impressive things about Columbus is how it feels infused with its own particular character while being simultaneously highly evocative of other films. Given how impeccable these invocations are, there is the risk of Kogonada’s debut being less than the sum of its parts and coming across as a pale imitation of superior influences. Perhaps the most obvious reference point is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, as two people get to know each other as they wander through a city, with various sights and locations acting as catalysts for conversations that open a Pandora’s Box of emotion. There is also a difference in age between Casey and Jin, and an underlying, intense melancholy that resonates with a similar force to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. With these touchstones established, Columbus goes very much in its own direction. In one sense, it is about Casey’s rediscovery of the love for her hometown paradoxically providing the impetus to move on. As in Coppola and Linklater’s films, Jin is a visitor to an unfamiliar place, but far from being a tourist, he is anchored there in a kind of purgatory as he basically waits for his father to die. The magic of Columbus needs to be unlocked by the pair’s mutual empathy before its spell can begin to heal.
Visually, the film is as striking as the buildings that form its backdrop. The architecture of Columbus is obviously the central metaphor, referring to how it both connects and divides its inhabitants; how we can be visible to each other through glass, but also fail to connect as it muffles speech. As Casey explains early on that a church has been built purposely slightly off-centre, so do Kogonada and DP Elisha Christian structure the cinematography. Relying, with a few exceptions, on entirely static cameras, they resist absolute symmetry. In almost every shot, there is at least one element that disrupts the balance. This keeps Columbus free of artifice, while still being fastidiously constructed. Whereas the symmetry in the compositions of someone like Wes Anderson speaks to a sense of sculpted whimsy and heightened reality, there’s a grounded air to Columbus that comes partially from the naturalistic performances, but also from the architecture itself. The town may be a modernist paradise for enthusiasts, but these are buildings of utility as much as beauty. As such, aesthetically the movie is practically the Bauhaus ethos set to film.
Kogonada wisely never lets the central relationship be overshadowed by his unique sense of style, allowing the two superb central performances to sprout organically from its visual foundations. He is also smart enough to realise that when a connection between two people is made, then the question of desire needs to be addressed, however obliquely. Even if it is out of sheer narrative convention, it’s impossible for the viewer not to subconsciously feel this romantic pull, and it feels like the age gap is a purposeful element to add a guilty, charged frisson of inappropriateness. It’s possible that an attraction to Jin is inferred on Casey’s part as she gently ushers the puppyish Gabriel (Rory Culkin) and his sad, adoring eyes into the friend zone, but she never discusses it explicitly. Jin’s potential attraction to Casey is muddied by it coming up in conversation with Eleanor (the evergreen Parker Posey), his father’s amanuensis, and someone for whom Jin has long harboured feelings. “Weren’t you 18 when you declared your love to me?” she prods him when he dismisses the idea. And when she says, “You look so much like your dad right now”, and a kiss follows, the sentence is instantly freighted with many years of implication and baggage. It’s emblematic of the film’s craft as a whole, and that there is practically no element without real importance.
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Short on overt drama, but with an endlessly warm and wise philosophy, Columbus is a quietly brilliant debut. Perhaps unusually for someone from a visual art background, Kogonada has made sure to foreground the story and to make sure the wonderful central pairing remains the focus. At no point does the undeniable style impinge on the simple but beguiling narrative. It’s also a great indicator of the diverse talents of its two leads; evidence of an unlikely but welcome mid-career renaissance for John Cho, and another step towards real stardom for Haley Lu Richardson. Destined to be a subject of low-key adoration for decades to come, it instantly establishes its director as a major voice in indie film with its beautiful balance of storytelling and aesthetic sensibility.