During the two weeks of April 2010, I went around here and there in Chicago for getting to know more of the city, and one particular thing I still vividly remember is the various architectural styles observed from numerous buildings in the city. While I was fascinated with several lovely historical buildings designed by Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, I was also enthralled by a number of slick modern buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other prominent modern architects, and I tried to capture all of these gorgeous buildings on my small digital camera. They showed me that Chicago is one of the most post-modern cities in the world where the old and the new get along with each other well, and that is why I sometimes look into their photographs.
While watching “Columbus”, I felt a similar type of enthusiasm. As leisurely rolling its simple romance tale in the foreground, the movie also focuses a number of distinctive works of architecture in the background, and how it subtly generates the emotional resonance between these two main elements of the film is more absorbing than expected. While there are many sublime visual moments to engage us, there are also little tender human moments to touch us, and the movie ultimately comes to us a heartfelt character drama to remember.
The main background of the film is Columbus, Indiana, which is nicknamed ‘Athens on the Prairie’ because of many notable public buildings and public art pieces designed by prominent artists and architects such as Henry Moor, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli, and Richard Meier, and Eero Saarinen. During the opening scene, we see a neat white house which is one of famous spots in the city, and that is just the prelude to many other fabulous sites to be observed during the rest of the film. In case of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, I was especially impressed by its ceiling design, and that reminds me again that the library building in my college campus is rather depressingly plain in its blunt appearance.
The early part of the movie is about how its two main characters happen to come across each other as total strangers. After a Korean architecture professor working in US suddenly becomes comatose in the middle of his visit to Columbus and then is sent to a local hospital, his Korean American son Jin (John Cho) soon comes from Seoul, but he does not feel particularly concerned about his father’s current health state compared to his father’s assistant Eleanor (Parker Posey). As shown from his conversation with Eleanor, he and his father have been distant to each other for many years, and he worries more about his ongoing work in Seoul, which he may give up if his father continues to be in coma without any progress.
Meanwhile, the movie also looks into the daily life of a young girl living in Columbus. While working as a page in the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) wants to be an architecture someday, and she is willing to go for higher learning after her high school graduation, but she knows too well that her situation is not very good. There is not much chance for her from the beginning, and she also cannot leave her mother Maria (Michelle Forbes), who really needs Casey’s support and care as a recovering drug addict.
On one day, Casey and Jin encounter each other by coincidence, and they find themselves spending more time with each other as going around various architecture sites which are Casey’s favorite places. At one point, Casey takes Jin to the Irwin Conference Center, and she tells him a bit about why this modern building designed by Saarinen is so significant. When Jin, who is not very interested in architecture but has some knowledge because of his father, asks her how she feels about the building, the movie makes an interesting choice in presenting her subsequent reply. As the camera looks at her behind a glass window, we cannot hear any word from her, but we can sense her enthusiasm as looking into her face, and that is more than enough for us.
“Columbus” is the first feature film from director/writer Kogonada, who has been known well for a number of impressive video essays on the works of the great filmmakers including Robert Bresson, Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick, Yasujirō Ozu, and Stanley Kubrick. I must confess that I have not watched any of his video essays yet (Shame on me!), but I can tell you instead that “Columbus” clearly show that he is a talented filmmaker to watch. Every shot in the film looks interesting thanks to precise and elegant scene composition, and Kogonada and his cinematographer Elisha Christian did a splendid job of vividly presenting those lovely architectural sites on the screen. As watching those superlative moments through Jin and Casey’s viewpoint, we come to emphasize with them more, and we accordingly come to care about their respective situations more.
It surely helps that the movie is supported by a group of talented performers. While John Cho, who drew my attention for the first time via “American Pie” (1999) and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), shows another side of his talent through his nuanced performance, Haley Lu Richardson, who was one of the colorful supporting characters in “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016), is equally fine in her warm, sensitive performance, and Parker Posey, Michelle Forbes, and Rory Culkin are also solid in their respective supporting roles.
When “Columbus” was shown at the Jeonju International Film Festival early in this year, I somehow missed it, but I fortunately got an opportunity to watch it thanks to a special screening held at a local arthouse theater, and I had a rewarding experience on the whole despite my rather drowsy condition today. I do not know when it will be officially released here in South Korea, but I really hope that I will be able to experience this stunning piece of work again as soon as possible.