Columbus, the first feature film from Kogonada, a video essayist and artist, reveals a filmmaker who understands the ways in which the aesthetics and narrative of cinema should compliment one another. It’s rare to find a writer/director who can execute this relationship at such a high level.
In Columbus, an architecture professor collapses and falls into a coma in a Columbus, IN, a Mecca of modern architecture. His son, Jin (John Cho), flies in from Korea to be there for him. Meanwhile, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a recent high school graduate, who has decided to forego college to stay home and care for her emotionally unstable mother (Michelle Forbes). She and John randomly meet and develop a fast friendship, bonding over their love of (Casey) or at least understanding of (Jin) architecture and their fractured relationships with their parents.
There’s a bit of dialogue that perfectly sums up Columbus. When Casey asks Jin if his father believes in anything, Jin says, “Modernism. Modernism with soul.” As we (and the characters) contemplate the beauty of their surroundings, we are keenly aware of the ways in which the architecture of Columbus speaks to and embodies the characters’ frustrations, sorrows, joys, and journeys. At the same time, Kogonada’s construction of the film enhances our connection to and understanding of these characters and their experiences.
In any other film, some of the dialogue would prompt collective eye rolls, but here it works seamlessly. At the local library, Casey and her friend/co-worker (played by Rory Culkin) talk about an article that he recently read. It’s a lengthy conversation, but the subject is vital to both the film and our experience of it…not to mention the wider world of arts and entertainment. Kogonada invites us to consider what we value, what interests us, and what consumes our attention. Is it video games, novels, architecture, religion, family? And how do we determine what one thing is more valuable or important than the next? In his journal, Jin’s father writes about the effort and economy needed to make the invisible visible…or to make what was always there visible. Where do we as audiences and artists…as parents and children and spouses and friends…put our effort and economy?