It feels like such a hopeless cliché to say that a film is ‘at war with itself.’ But I’m at a loss to find a better phrase to describe why Columbus, the debut film from writer/director Kogonada, doesn’t work. The title is a reference to the film’s setting of Columbus, Indiana, a small city rife with distinctive modernist architecture. With a documentarian’s eye, Kogonada shows us these impressive edifices in gorgeous, precisely-composed images straight out of National Geographic.
So it’s a bit jarring when fictional characters wander in, seemingly from other movies, and expect us to care about them. John Cho plays Jin, a Korean-American forced to return to Columbus when his estranged father winds up in the hospital. Meandering around the town he meets Casey, a young woman working at the local library. Casey is talented and ambitious, and dreams of being an architect, but feels chained to Columbus by her mother, a recovering addict. Will Jin reconcile with his father before it’s too late? Will Casey have the courage to let her mother go and follow her dreams?
If these characters sound familiar, there’s a reason for that. You’ve seen them before in better movies. Familiar characters are not a negative in and of themselves, provided they do or say interesting things, or that the director has a particular point of view about them. Unfortunately here, they do not, and he does not. And the directorial style Kogonada employs simply highlights his characters’ marked lack of depth.
I learn that before trying his hand at filmmaking, Kogonada was an academic, creating visual essays on such auteurs as Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, and Yasujiro Ozu. His reverence for these towering talents shows in every frame of Columbus. Like Ozu, his camera rarely moves; he cuts between set-ups so meticulously composed, each frame could fit somewhere in Architectural Digest (or American Cinematographer).
This pervasive focus on architectural elements often makes the people in the frame feel incidental. There’s not much of a narrative beyond the simple premises I detailed in the second paragraph, and not much more character development either. Almost every scene plays like nothing more than an excuse to film a beautiful building or idiosyncratic interior. And the fact that Kogonada shoots almost everything in wide and medium shots gives Columbus a detached, overly-objective atmosphere that only accentuates how alien the human element feels. (To see how a director can use this technique successfully, I refer you to Barry Lyndon.)
Honestly, Columbus comes dangerously close to being the kind of Festival Bait™ I denounce in my reviews of such films as The Fits and From Afar. I define Festival Bait™ as ‘a movie that uses tropes and techniques common among many films on the festival circuit, but without any understanding of why artists employ these modes and styles.’ Columbus is a prime example of this phenomenon, in that Kogonada is trying to tell some kind of story in his film, but the style he employs to do so is constantly at odds with the narrative threads he weaves. He imitates his idols, but lacks their maturity.
It’s also very peculiar that, though Kogonada’s camera is in love with the architecture and environment of Columbus, both main characters yearn to leave. Whatever his intentions, Kogonada gives the distinct impression that, though Columbus may be a beautiful city to look at, it’s oppressive to spend any extended amount of time there. Consequently, I felt the same about his film. The relief that his characters experience when they finally get to leave the city mirrors the liberation I felt when the credits rolled and I could go about my day. That said, I do look forward to seeing what Kogonada can do once he matures as a filmmaker; there’s definitely talent there.