Columbus, writer/director Kogonda’s directorial debut, is a masterwork of spatial and auditory control, suggesting a talent of much greater experience behind the camera. Kogonda fills every frame with visual wonder in a serene film that serves as a meditative tale of the restorative properties of architecture and the space in which we reside. With exceptional performances from John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Michelle Forbes, Rory Culkin, and Parker Posey, Columbus is a quietly engaging, contemplative story about two people whose lives intersect at the most opportune time.
Jin (Cho) travels to Columbus, Indiana, after his father, a well-respected architecture scholar, falls ill. While waiting to see if his father’s condition improves, Jin meets Casey (Richardson), a local girl whose love for architecture makes her small town feel cosmopolitan. As they grow closer, they explore their conflicted emotions about their parents and examine their own individual reluctance to move forward in their lives.
Everything about Columbus is meticulously constructed. The set design, costuming, cinematography, auditory ambiance, and editing are maintained with such stunning control that any singular scene exudes spatial significance. In one scene, Jin and his father’s companion Eleanor (Posey) discuss the past and how they were once close. The camera remains stationary, as it does for the bulk of the film, forcing characters to move within the space shown as both Jin and Eleanor repose on a couch, off camera, yet still in sight. The audience can hear what they’re saying clearly, but the only part of them we see are their heads, reflected from a mirror on the wall. In another scene, Jin and Casey stand in front of the Irwin Bank & Trust building – the first modern bank designed to feel welcoming – and discuss its history. This scene is shot from a distance, putting the building in prominent focus. Once Casey begins to explain her emotional connection to the building, the camera shifts to the buildings perspective, putting Casey as the focus; however, instead of hearing her, meditative music begins to play and we process her explanation through non-verbal expressive confession.
Both are significant scenes for the characters, yet they themselves are rarely the focus. Instead, they become objects within the scenes themselves, whose presence create meaning within a physical space that would otherwise be vacant. At one point Jin quotes James Polshek in describing the Columbus Regional Hospital by stating that, “Architecture is a healing art.” Keeping this quote in mind, the previously mentioned scenes take on a sharper focus as the set design and cinematography in each scene are utilized for maximum rejuvenation. In the initial scene, keeping the audience at a distance instills a greater sense of intimacy for the characters. In the second scene, Casey’s words are irrelevant to the emotional release the audience is privy to once she stops recounting education tidbits and opens up about how the building makes her feel. For any film in a director’s catalog, this would be impressive, but for a first-time director, such a strong grasp of spatial reasoning makes a simple film in which people discuss architecture utterly compelling.
Character-pieces such as Columbus tend not to draw large audiences, but to dismiss this film would be to miss out on two of the most quietly powerful performances of the year from Cho and Richardson. Though most audiences know Cho from the Harold and Kumar stoner trilogy or the recent Star Trek reboot, Columbus should solidify him as a leading man in dramatic pictures. His performance as Jin is based in a stillness that’s both comforting and disquieting depending his character’s mental state, a by-product of paternal discontent. Though the catalyst for much of the story centers on Jin and his family, the true weight of the film falls upon Richardson’s Casey. She’s the one who grew to appreciate the mastery of art and construction amid her hometown, and she’s the one who breaks through to Jin about his own understanding of his father. Growing up around something, Jin suggests, causes people to fail to see the value in it – the opposite of how Casey views her surroundings and what Jin needs to realize in himself. Narratively, it’s a heavy lift, yet Richardson easily conveys the sincerity, the depth of knowledge, and the lack of naiveté that might burden lesser performances. Richardson’s portrayal of Casey is critical to the success of Cho’s presentation of Jin and vice versa. Watching them play off each other is sublime.
In support are Michelle Forbes as Casey’s mother Maria, Rory Culkin as Casey’s coworker Gabriel, and Parker Posey as Eleanor. Each deliver fine performances, but this is the greatest example of a supporting cast in the truest since. None of the characters they portray are heavily featured, yet they feel fully-formed and make strong impacts on the narrative of the two main characters. It’s worth noting that while Joseph Anthony Foronda portrays Professor Jae Yong Lee, Jin’s father and the catalyst for the life-changing events that transpire, his performance is minimal as he’s only seen as a figure that moves briefly in the world before being hidden within a hospital room. This is a wise move on Kogonda’s part as making Professor Lee more prominent would shift the focus away from Jin’s personal journey.
In the quiet moments between breaths, between the flurry of noise, is when we are able to take notice of the details around us; details that we fail to observe in our blustery lives. Columbus may be about two people finding their way in life, but it’s the details of the world that bring them together. Between the career-defining performances from Cho and Richardson and Kogonda’s spellbinding cinematography, this quiet, character-driven story is not to be missed.
Columbus appears to be currently screening through the festival circuit, but there are individual screenings taking place throughout North America. If you’re North Carolina-based like EoM, then look for a screening at The Cary Theater in Cary on September 28th and a special screening with North Carolina Modernist Houses in Durham on November 2nd.
For the full event listing, head to: https://www.columbusthemovie.com/screenings/
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.