THE STORYWhen a renowned architecture scholar falls suddenly ill during a speaking tour, his son Jin finds himself stranded in Columbus, Ind., a small Midwestern city celebrated for its many significant modernist buildings. Jin strikes up a friendship with Casey, a young architecture enthusiast who works at the local library. As their intimacy develops, Jin and Casey explore both the town and their own conflicted emotions.
THE CAST – John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes & Jim Dougherty
THE TEAM – Kogonada (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
By Matthew G.
When life is full of pain and confusion, how do people cope? In professional therapeutic circles, you’ll generally be told that what helps people overcome their struggles is the support of other people. Indeed, a positive circle of friends and/or family is statistically the biggest predictor of successful recovery. And, in the case of “Columbus,” sometimes all it takes is one person to make the biggest difference of all.
When his estranged architect father falls into a coma, Jin (John Cho), travels to and is forced to remain in Columbus, Indiana in case his father recovers. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a resident of Columbus who yearns to pursue her passion for architecture but chooses to remain in Columbus to care for her formerly meth-addicted mother. The two disillusioned people meet, explore the architecture of the town, and discover truths about themselves and each other that will change both of their futures.
On the surface, it feels like the pitch for “Columbus” is one that wouldn’t work. It’s a film about two melancholic people brought together by happenstance, yet who bond over architecture of all things. And when I say they bond over architecture, I mean they drive around the town, look at the buildings, discuss their architecture, and use that architecture as a metaphor for life. And yet, it works. And it works extremely well.
John Cho gives an absolutely fantastic performance in “Columbus.” Most viewers know Cho as either a comedic actor in the “Harold and Kumar” films and “American Pie” or as Sulu in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise. Yet, he steps into a deep dramatic role and commands the attention of the viewer. However, Haley Lu Richardson matches Cho’s brilliance in her own performance. The two actors are often paired together in scenes that are filled with dialogue, especially philosophical dialogue about architecture and life’s troubles. Some of the scenes are also two or three minutes in length with no cuts. Cho and Richardson execute these scenes very well. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Rory Culkin and Michelle Forbes, who play small but pivotal roles as Casey’s coworker friend and mother, respectively.
Credit for the power of the words that Cho and Richardson use goes to Kogonada, writing and directing his first feature film. That name may be completely unfamiliar, as it certainly was to me. As it turns out, Kogonada is a critic and essayist who has repeatedly worked for Criterion (of the famous Criterion Collection), producing features for Criterion DVD releases. To find out that such a creative type was able to write and direct a debut film like “Columbus” is fascinating to me.
Such creativity shines through in how Kogonada has such a keen eye for details. That precision is most evident in the production design and especially the cinematography. There are a great number of shots and scenes in the film that feature a use of deep focus, whether looking down a hallway, looking at the horizon or looking into the air at the architecture of a building. In several key scenes, the camera is also set in such a way as to either be further away from the actors or frames the actors where the viewer only sees them in a mirror or off center on the screen. This creative framing and use of the camera’s focus adds to the feeling of alienation that the characters feel.
What may hold “Columbus” back from being accessible to a more mainstream audience is its subject matter and dialogue. For many, architecture and philosophy aren’t the most interesting of things to hear discussed. In fact, two people walked out of my screening of the film. Such heavy ideas don’t impede my enjoyment, but I can certainly understand why some viewers would be easily turned off by it.
In the end, “Columbus” is a haunting and poignant look at how two people can be brought together by even the smallest mutual bond. It’s about how such a bond can help people overcome their fears and uncertainties in life. John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson dominate the screen. Kogonada comes out of the gate with a great screenwriting and directing debut. The camera work and the settings are finely crafted and used expertly to add to the film’s overall effect. It’s a tremendous film that I highly recommend.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson command the screen in dialogue-heavy scenes, the cinematography is beautiful, the direction and writing from first time writer/director Kogonada is solidly precise.
THE BAD – The heavy focus on architecture and philosophy in the dialogue may be too dense or dull for some.
THE FINAL SCORE – 9/10