Review: Columbus

The title city, a leafy Midwestern exurb that is located in Indiana, not Ohio, is an interesting choice for a place where the two main characters find themselves stuck. The town’s main attraction is its full line of modernist architecture, much of it designed by the Finnish master Eero Saarinen, and first-time feature director Kogonada apparently built his whole script around this feature. The fact that it works so well in illustrating the difficulties of two people overcoming their circumstances is a tribute not only to the Korean-American director’s imagination, but to his acute insight into the way we project onto our surroundings.

If you need a genre check, Columbus is a coming-of-age story. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young woman who, despite encouragement from her betters and a sharply honed intelligence, has put off university, mainly because she is afraid of leaving her single mother (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict who may or may not be lapsing. However, her excuse to everyone is that she doesn’t want to leave. As she tells an old high school classmate who has moved on to Los Angeles, “I like it here,” much to the classmate’s arrogant chagrin. And it’s easy to understand at first because Kogonada and his cinematographer, Elisha Christian, are obsessed with the physical beauty of the town as much as Casey is, taking every opportunity, both within and without the parameters of the story, to explore these marvelous buildings.

The ringer is Jin (John Cho), the estranged son of an architecture professor who was slated to give a lecture in Columbus but suffers a stroke that puts him into a coma. Jin flies in from Seoul, where he works as a book translator, and is forced to hang around “until he either dies or recovers,” he tells his father’s long-time assistant, Eleanor (Parker Posey), and since the father simply lingers, Jin has to kill time. During an awkward but effectively staged meet-cute, he bums a cigarette off of Casey and a bond is formed. The younger woman had planned to attend the lecture, so she’s surprised to learn that Jin essentially hates architecture, and decides she will turn him on to her hometown’s charms. Puzzled and yet intrigued, Jin gives her a hard time. “Just tell me how you feel about it,” he demands impatiently when Casey launches into her tour guide shtick. To her credit, she’s up to the challenge.

The beauty of the dialogue is that it never shortchanges either the viewer’s or the characters’ intelligence. Casey often has spirited conversations with Gabe (Rory Culkin), her colleague at the local library who is working on a doctorate and is secretly in love with Casey. When Jin starts interrogating Casey’s reasons for having abandoned an opportunity to study architecture on the east coast, he compels her to talk about those feelings in a more practical way, thus revealing her insecurity about her mother, as well as her lack of self-confidence. In the process, Casey compels Jin to question his feelings toward his father and how those feelings have prodded him into a life he doesn’t really feel comfortable with. Both eventually become unstuck, but not in a way you would imagine. As resolutions go, the ones described in Columbus are surprisingly realistic considering how openly hopeful they are designed to be. Just like a great building.

In English and Korean. Opens March 14 in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Shibuya (03-5766-0114).

Columbus home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2016 Jin and Casey LLC

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