Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson
Runtime: 104 Minutes
The lingering assumption has long been held that those who critique art rather than creating it would be nowhere near as capable as the filmmakers and artists that they write about and discuss. But in an age where the medium of online video essays have allowed the essay format to translate into a more stimulating visual form, it’s great to see a talent like famed video essayist Kogonada producing something that shows the roots of his work, deconstructing the visual beauty and storytelling of filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Yasujirō Ozu, and Stanley Kubrick.
All three feel like they had a relevant influence on his debut feature, which follows Jin (John Cho), the son of a renowned architecture scholar who gets stranded in Columbus, Indiana and strikes up a friendship with young architecture enthusiast Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) who works at the local library.
The film is immaculately presented and composed, with subtle hues and colour corrected perfection as he photographs the unique modern architecture of the city. It carries itself over into the editing structure, which is slow but concentrated with cuts and recalls of symmetrical imagery, depicting routines seen as shared but isolated experiences that elapse time and time again. Even experimenting with frames within frames as mirrors and archways form the borders of other shots within the same field of view.
It’s a beautifully told story through the images alone that might as well just consist of still frames without much movement. But it works because the story being told, this delicate drama of isolated and stranded individuals meeting in the cross space of their lives, is very emotionally driven with scene after scene of conversation between the two as they saunter around the streets admiring and discussing the architecture.
It evokes the same silent sadness of Lost in Translation, finding a warmth in the brutality of the buildings, and the coldness of regurgitated facts giving in to true insight and connection in moments as simple as the sharing of a cigarette. More so, Kogonada’s blocking makes us privy to the sanctity of spaces open and closed in a manner similar to Haneke, and one moment specifically in which a moment of comprehension and reveal is muted through a window, allowing us only the sight of gestures and expression to fill in the blanks of emotion.
All the while the friendship blossoms and reveals new layers of understanding between the two, both of them stranded in a moment in time and waiting for motion or something more to come along.
Cho is great here delivering on a different shade of performance than he’s usually been afforded and really coming into his own as he ages gracefully into the role of fathers and mentors, his character unwilling to stay and face the inevitable as his father passes on, and a terrific supporting performance from Parker Posey as Eleanor, Jin's father’s longtime assistant, for whom Jin has harboured feelings in the past.
Casey is someone desperate for a connection with anyone else besides her recovering mother to who she has sacrificed her future, and Rory Culkin’s skulking intellectual who would rather talk at her than actually listen. She resembles something of a young Eleanor to Jin, but Haley Lu Richardson’s performance is anything but, with soft expression and withdrawal slowly falling away to reveal a deeply hurt and emotional individual.
Columbus is an incredibly dense film, rich with as many layers of visual understanding as the buildings that dominate so many of its frames. But it’s so very human and tender at its heart, with two excellent performances driving it and a sensational talent been found in the always humble Kogonada.