'Columbus': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A soft-spoken reverie.

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson star alongside Parkey Posey and Rory Culkin in Kogonada's quietly masterful feature debut.

A man who doesn’t seem to care about his comatose father, an esteemed professor, starts hanging out with a young woman who cares perhaps too much about her mother, a former addict. This one-sentence plot summary could have easily made for a solid if probably quite conventional character drama or melodrama. The feature debut from mono-monikered writer-director Kogonada, Columbus, also fits this plot description, but he’s got a secret third ingredient that frequently takes this story into unexpected directions: architecture.

A soft-spoken and perceptive film set in the Modernist small-town marvel that is Columbus, Indiana, this is a specialized art house treat that announces the arrival of a new director who combines small-scale, Ozu-like humanism with an impressive command of the formalist possibilities of film.

Book translator Jin (John Cho, more solemn than usual), perhaps in his late thirties, has arrived in Columbus from Korea after his professor father has suddenly fallen into a coma when visiting the town for a planned lecture on the local architecture. One of the people planning to attend the event was twentysomething Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who works in a local library where she hangs out with a brainy friend (Rory Culkin) who keeps teasing her about the fact he has a PhD but she still hasn’t really started studying. Kogonada, who also wrote the screenplay and edited the film, initially follows both of them separately before they finally converge and then meet again and again for a series of encounters that often involves the local girl taking the visitor to see an architectural landmark in the city.

Though his father is famous in the field of architecture, Jin confesses he’s neither an expert nor all that interested in the discipline. But he’s interested in what Casey finds “moving” about her favorite buildings and places, turning the conversation from something purely theoretical or anecdotal — “please stop the tour-guide talk,” he says early on — into something more personal. This slow shift from looking at constructions as entities separate or independent from our experience to seeing them as a defining part of them is not only carefully modulated in terms of the overall narrative thrust and finely chiseled dialogues but also in terms of the film’s own structure and its visuals.

For example, Kogonada — a nom d’artiste inspired, not coincidentally, by Ozu’s screenwriter, Kogo Noda — and cinematographer Elisha Christian initially showcase Columbus’ buildings in rigid, academic-feeling and otherwise empty tableaux. But as the story progresses and the characters get to know each other, the buildings where they meet slowly transform from carefully designed constructions into lived-in spaces in which the often-striking structures need to share the screen with the characters. The underlying idea is clear: Buildings as such don’t have any interest if they are robbed of their primary function, which is to house human activity. Kogonada, who has made a name for himself in the field of film criticism with his rigorously edited video essays, also applies this slow transformation to the underlying foundations of the film, with the structure and editing becoming less rigid and more “human” as the story unfolds.

However, the impressive range and carefully planned progression of Kogonada’s formal ideas would be quite useless if they weren’t in function of a story worth telling. Thankfully, Jin and Casey are pleasant and intriguing characters to hang out with as they talk about increasingly personal matters in a style that’s reminiscent of a slightly more earnest take on early Linklater. That said, there’s some humor present, such as when Casey suggests that “Meth and modernism are really big here,” a statement that says something about the town as much as her own complex relationship with her mother, which is in many ways a negative mirror image of Jin’s strained rapport with his father. Adding texture and balance in perhaps just a little too symmetrical a fashion, Casey has a male friend who functions as a sounding board while Jin has his father’s partner (Parker Posey, good but underused) to talk to.

One of the film’s chief pleasures is how it keeps the conversation between the various characters flowing while gently avoiding falling into any of the possible romantic-entanglement traps that viewers used to more conventional romantic works might be expecting. The fact it is accessible for people without any prior knowledge of either Modernism or architecture in general is another plus, though the film’s clearly too thoughtful and quietly masterful to ever qualify as a real crowd-pleaser.  

Production companies: Depth of Field, Nonetheless Productions, Superlative Films
Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parkey Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Writer-director-editor: Kogonada
Producers: Andrew Miano, Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Chris Weitz, Aaron Boyd, Giulia Caruso, Ki Jin Kim
Executive producers: Bill Harnisch, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Max A. Bulter
Director of photography: Elisha Christian
Production designer: Diana Rice
Costume designer: Emily Moran
Music: Hammock
Casting: Tina Kerr
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

104 minutes