In 1984, as a young architect, I was on a journey to see the architecture of the Midwest, and made a special stop for Columbus, Indiana.
Columbus, with a population of about 46,000 today, has an extraordinary legacy of modern buildings that few other towns in America can match (not to mention a 2007 middle school designed by Perkins+Will). The place and its architecture form the backdrop of 2017’s Columbus, the first feature written and directed by Korean American filmmaker Kogonada, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee. I was familiar with his short films and so was curious to see a full-length effort.
As an architect, I tend to approach films involving architecture with interest tempered by skepticism. With Columbus, I needn’t have worried. The story starts as Jin, played by John Cho, arrives in Columbus from Korea to be with his father, an architectural historian, who fell into a coma while visiting the city. Jin meets Casey, a recent high-school graduate who’s lived in Columbus since birth. Played by Haley Lu Richardson, Casey happens to be an architectural tour guide. So while Jin waits to see if his father will regain consciousness, she shows Jin around Columbus as they discuss architecture and life.
As a design buff, Casey would rather be studying architecture, but she’s stuck at home caring for her ailing mother. In this, she shares a kinship with Jin, who feels trapped in Columbus until his father can travel. The film indicates its theme in one scene, when a co-worker of Casey’s says, in a discussion on contemporary values, “It’s not a matter of attention span, but of interest. Are we losing interest in things that matter?”
Columbus explores this question in numerous ways. What matters, Kogonada implies, are people and the spaces they inhabit. The story unfolds slowly and the director lingers on the scenes and the characters, allowing us to fully consider—to find interest in—what we see and hear. Though the story of “Columbus” is quiet and the characters are gradually developed, Koganada’s approach shows a great deal of confidence. The actors give measured, subtly emotional performances, revealing their characters’ lonely and complicated circumstances as they reach out to those around them.
Prior to Columbus, Kogonada was known for his video essays using snippets of films by influential directors to illustrate cinematic technique. These range from one-point perspective (with work by Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson) and references to time (Richard Linklater), to using camera position to give a sense of space (Yasujiro Ozu).
Kogonada’s passion for technical analysis helped me understand the ideas he’s working with in Columbus. I saw Ozu’s influence in several scenes where the camera is farther from the actors than you would expect—in a hallway in Casey’s mother’s house or in a dramatic location in one of Columbus’ many exquisitely shot architectural landmarks. Techniques like these heighten the characters’ isolation and show the film’s clear understanding of architectural principles.
Columbus has a good story, an enchanting sense of visuals, and immaculate technique. It’s a great debut for Kogonada.