***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language)
Released: August 4, 2017 NY/LA; expands through fall
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Columbus is, on the surface, the movie equivalent of a great coffee table book about modern architecture. That’s a compliment, to be clear. Shot in a small Indiana town, Columbus is one of the most visually striking films of the year.
In every precisely-designed frame, this directorial debut from Korean-American auteur-to-watch Kogonada basks in a beautiful visual symmetry. It’s a wonder to look at – contemplatively, not because of eye-popping spectacle – just as one would deliberately consider an exhibit at a museum, patiently, allowing it to reveal itself and speak to you.
This visual canvas is both front & center and, ultimately, a backdrop to two strangers meeting at the intersection of similar life crossroads. But like so many lines in architectural angles, this man and woman need to go in opposite directions.
Casey is a post-high school young woman whose life is in limbo, but not for lack of talent or ambition (far from it). Jin is nearly twenty years her senior; he’s flown back into town from Korea because of a family crisis. Randomly crossing paths at first, they connect over Casey’s love of architecture (she’s a full-blown nerd; his dad is a noted expert), but then more deeply over the fact that each has a strained, complicated relationship with a parent.
Jin’s never been close to his dad, who’s now in a coma, with the distance between them being literally halfway around the world. Casey’s mom is a drug addict, but her response to this delicate disease is to stay even closer to her mother, not to run, even sacrificing her own dreams to help. Jin’s solution is to avoid his dad; Casey’s is to not leave her mother. He wants the parent/child relationship to end, she wants to repair it.
Much of the film is made up of Jin and Casey’s conversations as they stroll around Columbus, Indiana, looking at and talking about the town’s unique modernist structures, their histories, and what they evoke. These are very intriguing conversations, as are Casey’s with her Doctoral student library co-worker Gabriel, that grow from the intellectual to the philosophical, and eventually the personal.
What makes their connection fascinating, beyond the romantic chemistry, is the unique dichotomy of how Casey and Jin share similar problems that require opposite solutions. He’s been absent while she’s remained, but he needs to stop running and she needs to let go. You could say they need to switch virtues, she to fulfill her potential and he to make things right.
Ironically, the best thing for each of them, the necessary thing, is to heed the council they give to the other and then, for themselves, do the reverse. Actors John Cho (the new Star Trek films) and Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) engage each other with genuine compassion, empathy, and tough truths. In their exchanges, there’s real tenderness.
For an intimate character piece, Columbus is uncharacteristically short on close-ups. Its explicit focus on architecture is the reason why, but architecture serves as more than a modernist milieu. Environment informs character and, in that, architecture becomes a fitting metaphor.
Architecture isn’t just about design; it’s about space. How space is created within structure, how we respond to that space and that structure, how we exist in it, and how we share it.
In that sense architecture is like life, and how life is lived. At its core that’s what Columbus is about, too, as these two strangers help each other discover the necessary Feng Shui of their paths forward. Within that journey, Kogonada crafts a lush visual poetry with a spiritual one to match.