In a huge country like the USA it is frequent to find cities with the same name. There’s a Columbus, Ohio and a Columbus, Georgia; native Americans may know both, named after the supposed discoverer of America. But Columbus, Indiana? This small midwestern town, 60 kilometers south of Indianapolis, is known mostly to specialists in architecture: Columbus, Indiana is said to have the highest density of postmodern buildings for it’s size on the American continent.
And right there, in the middle of nowhere, Korean-born, US filmmaker, Kogonada, sets his first feature film. For a long while into the film, it seems that he has not much to tell except to show the beauties of Columbus’s architecture. But slowly one realizes that there is a story developing around two protagonists, almost entirely through dialogue.
There is the 19-year- old witty, working-class girl Cassandra, called Casey, who recently graduated from high school and now works at the local library. And there is the Korean-born American Jin, probably double the age of Casey. He flew in from Korea because his father, a professor of architecture, fell into a coma in Columbus and now lies in hospital. He’d been about to deliver a lecture, which Casey wanted to attend.
The unlikely couple meets at an unlikely occasion – outside, at a smoking break. In a beautifully conceived shot after, the two protagonists walk along talking to each other, but on opposite sides of a metal fence, naturally keeping a distance. This sets the tone for the entire film of their slowly developing relationship.
Casey turns out to enjoy being an unofficial local guide to the town’s architecture while Jin, the architect’s son, does not seem to be interested in her eloquent explanations. He’s more perplexed about the fact that Casey prefers to be stuck in her small town rather than taking up the offer she got to study architecture at a renowned university. He can’t understand why she does not pursue her dreams to become an architect.
Casey wants to stay in Columbus because she feels that she has to look after her mother, recovering from drug addiction. In turn, she is puzzled why Jin wanders around the town with no interest in anything, and shows no concern for his dying father. He only seems to be in Columbus because Korean tradition asks that when a parent dies the son should be present. So while he doesn’t seem to care about his father, she cares perhaps too much about her mother.
We encounter a slowly developing intimate relation between the unlikely couple, with no sex, no hug, not even a kiss, but with all the emotions of a mature relationship. The intensity of human touch is expressed in intellectual dialogue, and through the charismatic performances of Haley Lu Richardson (Split) and John Cho (Star Trek) is 2 underlined by the superbly filmed architecture of great masters such as Eero Saarinen, Cleo Rogers, I. M. Pei, and Richard Meier as well as Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely.
Kogonada is known for his video essays about filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ozu Yasujiro, whose screenwriting partner, Koga Noda, inspired him for his nom d’artiste. He is also his own screenwriter and editor, showing a deep knowledge of cinema history, i.e., quoting from Alain Resnais and L’année dernière à Marienbad.
Columbus, which is Kogonada’s directorial feature debut, had its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival and its European premiere in Rotterdam. It will screen this summer at Finland’s Midnight Sun Film Festival, the Munich Film Festival, and the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
It may be that the film develops not much of a story, but formally it’s one of the most interesting revelations in recent American independent cinema. It has a perfectly accomplished screenplay, superbly composed cinematography, almost always static shots. Kogonada is a new cinematic voice, and one has hopes and expectations that this is not his last feature film.
Edited by Gerald Peary
© FIPRESCI 2017