The small Indiana city may look like any other small town, but the crux that sets it apart from other small towns, is its impeccable modern architecture. In a film where the structural background is every much a character as the actors playing their own, Kogonada’s debut film, Columbus (2017) is every modernist’s dream of a film. Columbus is a well-paced, hypnotic feel of a film. Pulling in the viewer into the world of architectural innovation and design. Whether it is long open shots, which allows the viewers to fill in the blanks, or the close-up unconventional shots positioned relative to objects and characters in a scene, this film tells a story of art and the ways art can be explored, along with the chemistry between two people from different backgrounds.
Casey and Jin, played by Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho, cross paths in Columbus where their casual form of conversation develops throughout the film, into a genuine realistic friendship and hints at something more. Kogonada allows his story to overlap themes of different world views, responsibilities, cultures, environment, dreams, and architecture which enables the viewer to take it all in with stride. In a way, Columbus is an architecturally structured film that also features the unique architecture of Columbus, Indiana. Moments in the film, where the visuals take over and the dialogue fades into the background, allowing the viewer to take in the captivating hallways of buildings, archways or warmly lit living room, are moments of true art.
In the film, design is an added layer of overlapping narratives. The buildings and interiors in this film never feel like background props but move with the story seamlessly like woven patchwork. The film’s main leads are brought together when Jin’s father, who is an architecture historian, collapses which brings his son to Columbus to await his father’s recovery even despite a fractured father-son relationship. This unfortunate event brings him into contact with Casey who has lived in Columbus all her life and very much has a love affair with the modernist architecture. The two of them connect over architectural works like the Indiana Irwin Union Bank by Eero Saarinen and James Stewart Polshek’s Quinco Mental Health Center, which is a building that was fashioned to be a metaphorical witness to architecture’s power to heal. These buildings provide a sense of visionary transformation not only for the viewers but for the characters, as their friendship blossoms admits unfavorable circumstances.
Kogonada films Columbus’s avant-garde architecture with an almost serene lens of passion that Casey also arrays in the film. There is nothing more powerful than one being completely passionate about something and in this film, the director composes scenes with thoughtful, careful dialogue which also balances the lingering camera work on the equally thoughtful architecture. One of the scenes which highlight this thoughtful balance is where Casey and Jin are conversing in The North Christian Church designed by Eero Saarinen in 1964. The church is a striking building outwardly, but the conversation, inwardly, is what makes the scene it is featured in poignant. In the scene, the conversation of religion arises and that is when Jin asks Casey whether she is religious, and from her answer, he says, “I think religions are like monarchies. There might be a good king here or there, but the system is problematic. Too easy to exploit.” Words so profound as such are sprinkled throughout without making it obvious the interchangeable themes in the film.
The film’s heart belongs to Cho and Richardson, along with their characters’ various interactions with the people in their lives, but also an ode to the city it is set in. The relationships between each character are sprinkled with humanity and thoughtfulness, and Kogoanda’s careful display of the designs of the city’s structure is spell bounding.
Columbus is a beautifully directed, styled, and edited film which hardly wastes time on cliché beauty. The minimalist tone of the film truly allows the beauty of the Indiana city shine with its sleek modern glassed buildings and sharp modernist edges of concrete. The aesthetic precision in this film does not alienate viewers who may not know a lick about architecture, but rather invites even the most lay person the ability to experience the beauty and reflection in which architecture can evoke. If you are a fan of delicate films in the realms of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise or Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Columbus is a delicate debut to feast the eyes upon.