Film Review: Columbus

A very impressive directorial debut from a true cinemaniac, who has previously made homages to directors he may very well be the equal of.
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The titular city in Indiana, placid and quietly brainy (aside from being the birthplace of Mike Pence) and rife with striking modernist architecture, is the setting for this ruminative chamber piece of a film. In Columbus, Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American working in Seoul, arrives in town after hearing that his renowned architecture professor father has collapsed there on a visit and is in a coma. Although his dad was never close to him, Jin feels that age-old sense of family responsibility, as much as he regrets leaving the new life he has managed to carve out for himself as a translator.

Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who has lived in Columbus all her life, and although gifted, intelligent and obsessed with architecture, she forestalls any idea of college to care for her mother, a recovering crystal-meth addict. The oddly matched couple bond over both their parental obligations and architecture, as Casey, a born, happy tour guide, shows Jin, recalcitrant at first from his parental wounds, the formidable, inspiring structures by the likes of Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei in her beloved home town, masterpieces into which Midwesterners go to work each day, most of them totally unmindful of what went into the envisioning and making of them, as well as their cultural resonance.

This is one impressive feature debut by the South Korean immigrant Kogonada, who chose that name for himself, a homage to the moniker of Ozu’s Tokyo Story scenarist, Kogo Noda. Visually, it has to be one of the most stunning films of the year, as the director and his cinematographer Elisha Christian make Columbus a thinking man’s paradise on Earth, with shot after perfectly angled shot of surpassing found beauty, glorifying both those wondrous buildings and the refulgently fertile nature which manages to spring up everywhere. A scrupulous sense of detail and care is evident in every frame, and the dialogue between Jin and Casey is ever engaging—a rare meeting of the minds in a movie—always real and often highly informative. (Architecture geeks will have a field day.) Kogonada is known for his deep video essays on filmmakers like Ozu and Ingmar Bergman, but it was one he did on Hirokazu Kore-eda, which Chris Weitz saw while preparing an adaptation of Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, that led Weitz to become a producer on this film.

Weitz helped the director fight the racism of other producers, who couldn’t see casting John Cho, despite the Kumar movies and Star Trek, in the lead male role, as he, being Asian, supposedly didn’t have any value commercially. Cho, who’s been a quiet, authentic and always appealing asset of American cinema for two decades now, rewards their faith in him with a beautifully understated performance that manages to intensely convey Jin’s lifelong feelings of rejection and alienation, thanks to his prominent, now incapacitated papa. Richardson proves herself a real find, possessing a deeply inviting, near-preternatural self-possession. “Wasting” her young life away in Columbus may be a tragedy in the eyes of some, but you’d never know it from the radiance this happy structure-lover exudes with such a calm, beneficent glow. (The film gets a tad weepy towards the end, when Casey’s benign composure cracks into tears too often, but Richardson still delivers one of the most original and likeable young screen heroines in years.)

The romantically dissolute-looking Rory Culkin amuses as Casey’s too-cool-for-school sorta love interest, who receives a subtle comeuppance. Michelle Forbes is nicely understated as Casey’s troubled mother and, such is Kogonada’s tyro directorial authority, he actually has persuaded Parker Posey, as an associate of Jin’s, to ramp it down a few notches to play a recognizable human being.

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