Columbus made a splash at the 2017 Sundance Festival back in January, and is finally making its way to indie theaters. It is the first film from South Korean director Kogonada, a video editor who made his name creating supercuts of several other famous directors. As a man used to finding the beauty in the work of others, Columbus, a story on the surface about appreciating modernist architecture- seems to be a perfect fit. Fortunately, the director has graduated from appreciating the artistic merits of others, and creating a thing of beauty himself.
John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, Star Trek) plays Jin, the son of a famous Korean architect, called upon to take care of his father after he falls into a coma. He travels to…Columbus, Indiana- a small city in the southeastern part of the state where his father has traveled to give a speaking engagement. The city is known for said modernist architecture, looking more like a college campus designed by Frank Gehry than a part of the American Midwest. While there he runs into Casey, a recent high school graduate played by Haley Lu Richardson (Split, The Edge Of Seventeen), who has some parent issues of her own. Jin forms a bond with Casey, pulling us into a familiar will-they-or-won’t-they plot structure that gets us invested. But the film becomes something much deeper, becoming much more about who these individuals are, who they’re becoming- and how they happen to help each other figure those things out.
Jin and Casey are clear mirrors of each other. While Jin is estranged and distant from his own unconscious father, Casey is overly close to her mother (Michelle Forbes); a woman who has had many struggles over the years, and whom Casey is always afraid may take one too many steps back into old habits. It’s this attachment that keeps Casey in this small town, despite chances to leave and further study her love of architecture at faraway universities. Instead she spends her time flirting with a co-worker at her library job (Keiran Culkin, giving what may be the best ever Culkin brother performance), and memorizing the tour guide speeches, a job she hopes to get soon. Jin and Casey are each missing something big from their lives, something mostly found in their relationships with themselves. We follow them around town, checking out the sites, chain smoking cigarettes and having the most heady and intellectual discussions this side of Richard Linklater. I was reminded of another great indie director’s debut, Thomas McCarthy’s 2003 film The Station Agent. Both films are about wounded souls with peculiar interests in isolated places, who find themselves making connections despite their best attempts not to.
Each shot feels like a photograph, with the characters moving within the frame- the camera lying still (calling to mind the films of Taiwanese master Tsai Ming Liang) and observing. Every detail is carefully constructed, with nothing there by accident; much like the architecture that Casey loves so much. Cho and Richardson are often framed from a distance, to the extent that the occasional close ups or medium wide shots come as a relief. These people are not just still buildings- they have a pulse, they breathe, they move around. Their fluttering insecurity stands in stark contrast to the confidence of the architecture.
A town in the middle of nowhere, USA, seems like a very odd place to house so much beauty- the type of beauty you think you would find in a big city. At one point, Casey tells Jin that most people in the town don’t really care about the architecture. Jin understands- he doesn’t really care about architecture either, despite his father’s renown expertise. He tells her that if you grow up around something, you get used to it- as if you stop caring about it altogether. Jin’s resistance to his father’s work seem exacerbated by being a first generation, son of an immigrant. His attitude of detachment and angst towards those around him seems firmly in line with the cliches of American Generation X (Cho himself is 45 years old). Casey is an optimist, a dreamer, a classic Millennial- but surrounded by colleagues whose degrees mean less and less every year, and failing to launch a little herself. If Noah Baumbach’s tale of generational warfare While We’re Young left a bitter taste in your mouth as a Millennial, Columbus should serve as a reparative sweetener; a tale of empathy and communication, where generational differences play the subtext.
Columbus is a must see, and one of the best films of the year. Cho gives a career best performance, and Richardson announces herself as a serious talent to watch. It’s a true delight, and will hopefully leave you in a blissful late summer haze as you walk out of the theater.
Columbus opens in Philly theaters today.