Columbus is a precious kind of contradiction: both an unabashed mystery and a work completely expected of its author. If you want to understand the film, you’d best get acquainted with the filmmaker, Kogonada, frequently self-styled as “:: kogonada,” a short film director with a portfolio of visual essays found within the annals of the Criterion Collection. He’s a man born to pore over the filmographies of the masters—Godard, Ozu, Bresson—and boil their pictures down to their essences. You figure it takes time and effort to reach the conclusions Kogonada does, but his process reads as effortless, and his insights obvious. (In the interest of clarity: His criticism is a mirror through which other critics understand that they are clowns.)
So of course Kogonada has made his feature debut with an emphasis on method and a sharp eye for theme. Columbus, appropriately enough, is an impeccably constructed movie about architecture, and this feels something like a calculated risk: Settling his film on a foundation of cool, minimalist craftsmanship, with a through line of building design, sounds way too on the nose for its own good—too coy, too affected. But Kogonada’s interest in architecture equals the interest his characters have in architecture, which is low to the point of being tangential to the rest of the film. Columbus is a loving tone poem dedicated to its namesake locale, a modestly sized burg in Indiana where apparently everyone knows a thing or three about what goes into building buildings, but the buildings are window dressing, backdrops to poetic melancholy.
The precipitating event of Columbus’s plot occurs in the margins, half on screen and half off, when an architect visiting the town suddenly collapses and sinks into a coma. His condition is such that his estranged son, Jin (John Cho), immediately leaves his home and his job in Seoul, as one would expect family to do—though Jin doesn’t feel particularly warm and fuzzy about his dad. His presence in Indiana is justified as a response to obligation’s call. He’s there because he has to be. We can almost see his misery choking the air around him.
Kogonada introduces us to Jin only after introducing us to young Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a Columbus resident who, like Jin, cites duty to family as her reason for living there. Her mother (Michelle Forbes) is an addict in recovery, and Casey can’t abide the idea of abandoning her to pursue loftier dreams, if not out of love for Mom than out of fear of a relapse, or worse. Jin and Casey are strangers in a land that doesn’t exactly qualify as strange, but doesn’t exactly qualify as routine, smalltown America, either, and as strangers in a land that is neither strange nor routine they inevitably meet, bond and work out their various parental issues and future anxieties with one another. Theirs is a platonic love rather than romantic, and if for no other reason than that, Columbus feels like an achievement: It sets up the well-trod, icky manic pixie dream girl trope only to bypass it entirely.
For Jin and Casey, all is uncertain. For everyone else, certainty lies in what they believe Jin and Casey need out of life. No spoilers, by the way. Columbus is the kind of movie that can’t readily be spoiled, or given away, or otherwise ruined by advanced discussion. It’s a movie of quiet, enigmatic grace, a totally relatable story of people stranded by responsibilities both self-imposed and imposed on them by others. “You don’t want to be a librarian,” Casey’s friend Gabriel (Rory Culkin) tells her toward the start of the film, the first of many assertions and declarations made by her peers regarding her prospects for attaining success and happiness. He’s ignorant, of course, to the reality of Casey, which is that she probably would be happy being a librarian in her hometown, with her mother, but that she’d probably also be happy doing other things, too. She’s just unsure what those other things might be, at least at first.
By contrast, there’s Jin, who has a pretty damn good idea of what he doesn’t want to do or to be, but still struggles to identify what he does want to do or to be. He’s cuts a less singularly fascinating figure than Casey, but that’s pretty clearly intentional: We’re programmed, or maybe socialized, to assume that Cho is the film’s lead, but Columbus is more Richardson’s film than it is Cho’s. Jin is a sounding board for Casey; he’s a character of tragic consequence who happens into her existence and tells her what she needs to hear in order for her top be able to move forward from where she is. (Meanwhile, she shows him the compassion that he’s missing.) In a crummier, hackier film, they would fall head over heels for each other, but Columbus is more refined than that.
Kogonada takes us on a tour of Columbus and all of its glorious, beautiful, occasionally surreal architecture, from the Columbus Learning Center to the Second Street Suspension Bridge. He highlights these landmarks in tribute to his setting, but the greatest monument on display here is Richardson’s striking, towering performance. The places and things Kogonada includes in his frame are important for drawing us into Columbus’s world, but it’s Richardson who gives that world its shape, supplying her director’s clean, static compositions, captured in long shots, with aching humanity molded by doubt and disappointment.
“Do you think he’s got a chance to recover, even if it’s just enough to go back to Seoul?” Casey asks Jin as she takes a drag off her cigarette. “God,” he mutters, “I hope not.” She’s stricken by the acidic tone of his reply, as if Jin’s ambivalence has fractured the veneer covering her world. It’s a great moment in a movie littered with them, and most of them belong to Richardson’s poise.
Through the figurative lens of Richardson’s performance and the literal lens of Kogonada’s camera, we see Columbus for what it is: A moral lesson about keeping ourselves in neutral. The more time we spend living in the same spot, the more we take that spot, and ourselves, for granted.
Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Michelle Forbes, Rory Culkin
Release Date: August 4, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.