There’s an old saying, often attributed to Martin Mull, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In many ways first-time writer/director Kogonada’s “Columbus” treats architecture like music, as its protagonists write, talk, bicker, and dance about an extraordinary collection of modernist structures in the unassuming Midwest town of Columbus, Ind. The hypnotically paced drama carried by the serendipitous odd-couple pairing of John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson is lovely and tender, marking Kogonada as an auteur to watch.
A film critic and video essayist with evident affection for the work of Asian masters ranging from Yasujirō Ozu to Hirokazu Koreeda, the mono-monikered director examines the relationships between his characters and their environment with an architect’s attention to detail. That he also trains his lens on a place and people rarely explored on film, and provides a quintet of terrific performers with the opportunity to stretch and showcase their skills, only adds to his debut’s unique appeal.
Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus her entire life. Fast approaching her 20s (or possibly just starting them, it’s not clear), she’s beginning to think about next steps. But a deep connection to her hometown and a strong bond with her working-class mother (Michelle Forbes, moving and lived-in), a recovering addict now in a stable place, makes Casey apprehensive about leaving to pursue her interest in architecture.
Jin (Cho) left his family behind years ago, but returns to the U.S. from his new life in Korea, where he translates literature, when his architecture professor father collapses on a visit to Columbus and is hospitalized in a coma. Although his passions led elsewhere, Jin retains a lingering guilt, and defensiveness, over his lack of family commitment.
Casey and Jin inevitably cross paths, and their casual conversations blossom into a genuine friendship, and possible a courtship. Nothing is quite so simple in “Columbus,” and Kogonada is more interested in the characters’ overlapping and divergent worldviews and dreams, based on culture, environment, and upbringing.
The pair each have a secondary confidante/love interest. Jin with his father’s colleague (Parker Posey, vibrant), on whom he nursed a crush in his youth, and Casey with hyperarticulate Doctoral student Gabriel (Rory Culkin, charming). At one point Gabriel delivers a spellbinding dissection of the modern attention span, suggesting Kogonada is aware of the material’s ponderous nature and specialized audience appeal.
But those who appreciate “Columbus” will likely take it to heart. The relationships between each of the characters are imbued with warmth and humanity, and the filmmaking — like the city’s structures designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei — is simply gorgeous.
The modernist landmarks in Columbus (incidentally the hometown of Vice President Mike Pence) are true co-stars here. Casey’s appreciation of the “healing power” of buildings stirs something in Jin that never quite connected when he was with his father (although it’s surely no coincidence their bond coincides with his father’s coma), and the film’s gentle explorations of class divides — we’re constantly reminded of the people trying to make a living inside of these works of art — qualify as a timely addition to the current national dialog.
But Kogonada, who also serves as the editor, has also made a film that feels timeless. From Elisha Christian’s rigorously composed cinematography to Hammock’s sparingly but very effectively used ambient electro score (the film gets just as much emotion out of stretches of silence and layered sound design).
At the center of it all, amid the buildings, are Cho and Richardson. One veteran demonstrating his untapped ability as a captivatingly sincere leading man, and one relative newcomer proving her ability of holding the screen with maximum soulfulness in a minimalist drama. Together they form an unexpected, but perfectly constructed, pair.