One specific visual composition recurs constantly throughout Columbus , a movie that mostly consists of dialogue scenes between one man and one woman. That recurring shot, in a way, is a three-hander: the man and the woman usually take up the right and the left sides of the foreground—often blocked so that we’re seeing half of their faces or less—while our eyes are drawn to the background, which is populated by the world-renowned modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana. With many thanks due to the funding of American industrialist J. Irwin Miller (1909-2004), the city is a landmark of that movement, and plays host to buildings designed by architects including Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei, and Robert Venturi, among numerous others. This is a history that the characters in Columbus are quite conscious of—specifically Cassandra (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), who typically are the man and the woman speaking in that recurring composition. Jin is a translator in Columbus from Seoul because his father, a noted academic, fell into a coma while there to give a presentation; Cassandra (Casey) is a townie “architecture nerd” who works part-time at a library (the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, designed by I. M. Pei), and who had intended to see Jin’s father speak, before the older man fell ill. Casey and Jin first talk over cigarettes, then start meeting up to visit some of the city’s most notable modernist buildings—with Casey giving Jin a personalized tour of Columbus’ architectural history, which means she’s giving that tour to us as well. This may be a film of conversations, but you’re looking past every one of them.
A film teaches you how to watch it, and Columbus indeed teaches you that we’re not always going to be watching the people. The first scene takes place at Miller House—designed by Eero Saarinen, and formerly owned by the family of J. Irwin—where the film patiently cycles through a series of compositions that document the building’s layout and installations. During this sequence, a woman (Parker Posey) is pacing through the backgrounds, calling out for a “professor” (Jin’s father, soon to collapse). She does find him, but throughout the scene, the face of Jin’s father is never made visible—and in a couple of these compositions, Posey’s character is literally outside the camera’s focus as well. When Jin does arrive, to be present at what may be his father’s death, he stays at the Inn at Irwin Gardens (once the childhood home of the same J. Irwin, now a bed-and-breakfast), and once again the film’s concern is with architectural design. We patiently cut through a building’s layout once again, this time looking at multiple shots of the Irwin mansion’s picturesque exteriors. Built and rebuilt from 1864 through 1910, the Inn is far removed from modernism, and Jin’s placement in it contrasts with his father’s at Miller House. It’s an early aesthetic hint towards a narrative detail: that Jin is distant from his father, not only physically but also intellectually (“I don’t know shit about architecture”, he’ll tell Casey later, though he’s at least halfway lying), and interpersonally (father and son have not spoken in over a year.) Columbus is the first feature-length work directed by visual artist/video essayist Kogonada, whose short pieces have previously been released by organizations like the British Film Institute and the Criterion Collection. Some of those video essays document the importance of objects within the works of specific filmmakers: “Mirrors of Bergman” was one, a piece documenting the presence of doors in the films of Robert Bresson was another. His unadulterated passion for objects and spaces is quite apparent—and it carries over to the objects and spaces that are seen in Columbus. What’s also immediately apparent, far more importantly, is his ability to find storytelling possibilities and visual textures within them.
Kogonada is also the writer and editor of the film, and with regards to the former craft, his work is what you might call observant. The film’s characters discuss subjects that people in this class and milieu might believably discuss: when Casey’s well-educated coworker at the library (Rory Culkin) attempts to flirt with her, he does so with rambly lectures, or with some faux-authoritative academic takes (“whatever you do, don’t get an MLS.”) Its characters also approach one another the way people in this class and milieu might believably approach each other: there’s more than a hint of personal experience in the scene where Casey (who is white) first meets Jin (who, like the director, is Korean-American)—Jin only asks for a cigarette, and Casey essentially profiles him in response, first expressing surprise that he can speak English (he was speaking Korean on the phone right before), then presuming that he’s the son of the comatose professor, merely due to their shared ethnicity. That she’s right about that last point is a dramatic shortcut, but it doesn’t lessen the social critique of the scene, which is taking place in a city that’s something like 87% white (it takes Casey about three clarifications before she realizes that it’s “Jin” and not “Jim.”).
What plays less naturally is the dialogue itself: like the work of many first-time writer-slash-directors before it, Kogonada’s dialogue can occasionally sound like an artistic manifesto read aloud, much to the detriment of his more artfully-textured scenes. In one scene, Casey slowly cooks her highly-dependent mother (Michelle Forbes) a meal, then speaks about its subtlety and lingering aftertaste (she’s basically pitching the film’s pace and rhythm); in another, Jin chides Casey when her mini-lectures on works of architecture devolve into lists of factoids, professing that what matters instead is “how do you feel?” (he’s explaining the way the film regards architecture and objects—as being potential inroads towards self-understanding). These are codes and metaphors and symbols working on the basest level—recall that our tour guide, the one townie to see Columbus’ beauty, is a Cassandra, the one who sees. This is a film that seems to talk about itself, and constantly, to an extent that I’m not entirely sure is productive. But for a retort to that point, we can turn Kogonada himself, speaking in an interview published by Inverse: “You don’t see a lot of Asian men in American cinema who are wrestling with ideas, their parents, their existential crisis,” he noted. “But as an Asian-American male, that’s what Asian-American males are like. We are existential people. We love talking about art and trying to figure things out.”
There is a traditional movie narrative that bubbles up in the dialogues shared between Jin and Casey, though it’s not quite as pronounced as a summary might make it sound. As Jin becomes more aware of Casey’s ambitions and intelligence, he begins to try to motivate her to study at an institute of higher education—at which point he becomes aware, through both her words and her suddenly reticent physicality, that she’s bound to this city by way of her mother, a recovering addict who might struggle to maintain sobriety without the companionship of a family member. (Cho and Richardson’s performances are both exceptionally physical—their vulnerability shows in their movements, and in the space they keep between one another, more than it does in their voices—though Cho maintains that reticence throughout, while Richardson moves in and out of it.) As a story, this can feel like a bridge between two very different film lineages: on one side, it is written as a rather typical American coming-of-age narrative, concerning a promising young upstart finding their way out of a hometown that isn’t quite fulfilling them, complete with road metaphors and profile shots of a hopeful faces staring out a car window—yet on the other side, it shares a surface resemblance with the recurring themes and narratives seen in the films of Japanese master filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963), whose films constantly studied dependencies inherent in the family dynamic (among innumerable other subjects). The artist was indeed a subject of study for Kogonada in his time as an academic: the director’s unfinished thesis was said to “explore the possibility of alternative modernity in the films of Yasujirō Ozu”, which might even be the kind of synopsis a cheeky film-nerd would give to Columbus.
Yet narrative is not the primary connection between Columbus and the films of Ozu. The visual compositions of Kogonada—working with cinematographer Elisha Christian, production designer Diana Rice, and art director Adriaan Harsta—are very clearly indebted to the Japanese master (I’ll note that Kogonada is, obviously, a pseudonym—and Ozu’s most regular screenwriter was named Kogo Noda.) Columbus relies on static images that hold for moderate (but not stultifying) lengths of time, and those images typically stay at ground or eye-level; these are statements that could be made about the films of Ozu, and that would be true at least in some general sense. This is not to suggest that what’s happening is imitation—what’s happening is probably closer to Columbus’ buzzword, closer to an attempt at “modernization”, an attempt to build that aforementioned bridge. But you do notice the gaps. Even the long shots in an Ozu film, for instance, tend to privilege the work of the performers involved: their body is kept in full view, or their face remains visible in the frame. And the editing rhythms in those films would build towards the faces of the performers, unveiling close-up’s and utilizing camera movements at extremely precise moments, and with true elegance. Columbus may be precise, but it’s not quite elegant. Its visuals can often be as ostentatiously mannered as its dialogue, and its cutting rhythms frustrate as often as they reveal. Mirrors are utilized regularly, in a way that emphasizes the emotional links between these socioeconomically disparate characters—but that also means that the performers, in some of their most vulnerable moments, are relegated to mere corners of the frame. At other times, the editing moves back-and-forth between medium-shots and distanced compositions, but in a way that ensures we’re never getting a full look at the performer’s face either way. These are magnificent images, but not magnificent sequences—words, but not yet sentences. It is of course immeasurably unfair to compare a first-time narrative filmmaker to one of the form’s greatest masters, even when the work of that first-time filmmaker so blatantly invites the comparison. But that comparison does reveal what Columbus seems to miss: Kogonada’s spaces are richly conceived, but they’ve yet to find the room needed to emphasize the rich performances within them.
COLUMBUS. NOT RATED. OPENING FRI 9.8 AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE, 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG FOR INDIVIDUAL SHOWTIMES. FILMMAKER KOGONADA IN PERSON FOR 4:30PM AND 7:15PM SHOWS ON SUN 9.10.