Not too long into Columbus, the feature debut of video essayist Kogonada, I started the necessary process of questioning the aesthetic conceit of what I was seeing. The film is set in Columbus, Indiana, something of an architecture capital, and much of the film delicately, thoughtfully, places its characters in the wake of those structures. The extraordinary design and angularity of the landmarks, from buildings to bridges to towers, demands an equal level of spacial consideration from the camera. Every image is at such a high level of visual sophistication, in foreground, background, framing, that it’s impressiveness starts to taunt us. Are its images just brilliant for their own indulgent sake, or are there sincere emotions underpinning each decision?
The questions I was asking while still agape at the majestic placement of bodies against mammoth structures, reassuringly, were questions that the characters in the film were also asking. After discussing the stunning, unexpected impact a seemingly random structure had on her at a trying period in her life, Columbus native Cassandra (Haley Lu Richardson) – ‘Casey’, as friends and family simplify – meaningfully clarifies “I didn’t say I was healed.” It’s a moment that resonates simply because it distinguishes resonance from recovery. A work of art can be meaningful without necessarily making life easier for its beholder. Such is the form of Columbus, constructing an array of startling images that make us feel both richer and smaller.
We quickly align with Casey, the quietly torn Columbus resident who’s reasonably comfortable staying in her home town to take care of her emotionally recovering mother. It’s the kind of compromised complacency that her eventual counterpart, Jin (John Cho), can’t particularly comprehend. In town to wait for his ailing father to either recover or die, Jin’s bitterness and reluctance to stand by his dad makes him initially difficult to empathize with. He doesn’t share an ounce of his father’s fascination with architecture, often vacantly drifting between spaces without contemplating on his place within them. When he and Cassandra happen upon each other, initially divided by a fence they eventually, symbolically, find some avenue to cross through, they develop an attachment more out of emotional necessity than shared interest.
It’s hard to say if Casey’s passion for her town’s architecture, strong enough for her to keep a ranked list of her favorite structures, rubs off on Jin, but the two’s differing views and circumstances certainly form a receptive ongoing dialogue. In one scene, after Casey starts rambling through a tour guide’s description of a building, Jin stops her, asking her why she, specifically, feels such a strong fondness towards it. Kogonada cuts to within the building looking outward, Casey’s precise description muffled, but her pure feelings of resonance and intrigue still intact. It doesn’t matter so much how, or how well, she describes, as long as it comes through genuinely, and not superfluously.
As specific and intimate as their mutual rapport is, down to Casey giggling a sentimental intonation from Jin – “Your mother? Did she do meth?” – it remains an unstable, electrified connection because of how strongly they believe they know what’s best for each other. Jin comes from familial background of failed expectations, neglected by his father and increasingly sore over having to pause his life indefinitely for someone wouldn’t do the same. For him, it seems silly for Casey to give up her dreams and ambitions to care for her mother. Even at her most irritated, though, Casey feels such a filial bond to her distressed mother that moving on from it, even to better things, makes her feel selfish and inconsiderate.
Kogonada does an exquisite job finding the ideal spaces to reflect Casey and Jin’s confused and uncertain feelings, and even more so finding ways to either delicately spotlight or harshly diminish them within the frame. The core performances, though, are what sell the connection and the mutual influence of having each other to help guide or challenge them. Haley Lu Richardson, fresh from small, but startlingly sincere, turns in The Edge of Seventeen and Split, has wide, respectful canvas to illustrate her character’s internal conflict, wrestling with humble happiness and irresistible ambition. John Cho has a tougher job, unpeeling Jin’s restrained and socially off-putting exterior to reveal the deep reservoirs of pain and regret that underpin nearly every unresolved family estrangement. Family can often feel like a binding contract, and Casey and Jin beautifully illustrate the hard compromises children make to either maintain or sever that contract.
Kogonada’s emerging visual and verbal style certainly evokes Yasujiro Ozu, Wong Kar Wai and even Richard Linklater at times, but his intricately considered approach, visible in even his video essays, feels distinctly, often dauntingly, his own. While much of D.P. Elisha Christian’s delicate work is devoted to shrinking or expanding its character’s against daunting landmarks, there’s just as much attention paid to musty, dankly lit interiors. Mirrors, doorways and crevices of differing size and shape create frames within each frame, opening new, often opposing, perspectives for the characters to consider. If imagery and architecture doesn’t make life any easier for Columbus’ leads, it at least makes the world a wider place, even when waylaid in a small place.