Photo | Depth of Field Productions
Columbus” is a quietly breathtaking film, not about the fellow who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but about a town in Indiana, unremarkable except for its unusual array of modernist architectural gems designed by such masters as Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese. Similarly, this is a film that seems to have little plot going on, while in fact the lives of the characters are irrevocably changing.
Written and directed by South Korean video essayist and critic Kogonada, this film is visually stunning and masterfully composed. It is the story of Jin, played by John Cho, who rushes from his home and work in Korea when his father, a professor visiting Columbus to lecture on the local architecture, collapses and falls into a coma. Cho is ambivalent about his father’s condition, to say the least.
The film belongs entirely to Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Casey, an intelligent and lively young local woman resisting opportunities to go to college because she doesn’t want to leave her mom, a recovered drug addict. She meets Jin and starts to share her love of architecture with him, a passion he intentionally rejects, and the two strike up a “Lost in Translation” kind of friendship.
The actress and the film resist every temptation to make her too adorable, and she never becomes the free-spirited heroine to Jin’s uptight grown-up. Actually, in its quiet and slow way, this is an unusually effective coming-of-age film because it doesn’t always look too directly at that issue. We think we’re watching a movie about a man coming to terms with his father, but it is Casey’s story that is most important.
She is also much more interesting than Jin. John Cho is perhaps too effective as an unemotional man, and we get none of his considerable charm or spark. It may have been intentional, but it gets a bit frustrating. The visual aspects of this film, which are worthwhile on their own, would overshadow the story if it weren’t for the glowing, real, beautiful performance of Haley Lu Richardson.
If you visit kogonada.com, and you should, there are clues to a deeper understanding of the vision for this film. There is a video essay on symmetry in the work of Wes Anderson, which makes perfect sense when you watch the painstakingly composed “Columbus.” Then we find a video essay on Richard Linklater, and see this film is clearly influenced by his low-key, conversational masterpieces starting with “Before Sunset.”
Thematically, the characters in “Columbus” are students of great masters, and clearly Kogonada is too. His cogent and perceptive visual essays on Hitchcock, Ozu, Malick, Bresson, Godard and Aronofsky, to name a few, distill their visual signatures and recut them, revealing a deep and fresh perspective and understanding. Now his first feature film is a step further into that synthesis of influence.
“Columbus” is an overt art film, but with a delicate relationship drama woven through. It’s exciting to consider Kogonada’s creative work in the context of his critical work; his next film is supposed to be about a father and daughter as they try to save the life of a robotic family member. This film was a wonderful introduction to this director, and now I have a new actress, Haley Lu Richardson, to seek out, too.
“Columbus” is currently available to rent.
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