Director Kogonada’s film Columbus is a true masterpiece. It revolves around the story of a Korean American man (played by John Cho) named Jin who departs from his publishing job in Seoul to visit his sick father, a renowned Korean architect, in the quiet town of Columbus, Indiana. He befriends a young white woman named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who shelves the idea of college and instead shelves books at the university library to help out her mother, a recovering meth addict. She’s an architecture buff but doesn’t want to pursue her interest extensively so that she can stay in Columbus and care for her mother. These two characters are starkly different, yet they’re the same—both feel stuck in life. They befriend one another and develop an unconventional rapport, which is mostly platonic and dialectical.
The cinematography, by Elisha Christians, is beautiful, the film progressing like an ongoing series of paintings. The physical negative spaces and the quiet moments in the film create the strongest emotional pulls. This contrasts with many westernized films where the most emotional moments are often the most outward in the form of heightened violence or lengthy dramatic monologues. The film is quiet, quite literally quiet. The dialogue is sparse but meaningful. Music rarely plays in the background.
Columbus also has a very clean, minimal aesthetic. It illuminates Columbus’ finest architecture, many of the buildings towering, angular, square. Every building is a beauty with history, whether it’s a hospital, bank, school, or bridge. There are as many moments that frame the characters in relation to spectacular buildings as there are moments that frame the characters in relation to mundane habitats, such as the shower, messy bedrooms, and so on. The film also plays on the idea of absence. Jin is reluctant to see his father, but he does see his father every so often as he stays in Columbus. Yet we do not see his father. Most of the time, the viewer sees Jin and his friend Eleanor (Parker Posey) lingering in the hospital, entering the room. When he’s inside his father’s room, we only see a silhouette of his father’s lower body covered in a hospital blanket. This absence is melancholy, frustrating, and perhaps telling—telling of his father’s absence in Jin’s life and his desire to veil his memory of his father.
There’s also an interesting duality that goes on in the movie. Jin is an older Asian man who problematizes the idea of filial duty to his father. He feels rather cynical about it. Casey, a young white woman, willingly shelves her dreams because of her intense loyalty to her mother. Jin belongs to an older generation of Asians who have a stronger sense of familial obligation and Casey is younger and doesn’t belong to a culture that heavily emphasizes such an obligation. In fact, she belongs to a generation that is often accused of self-entitlement. The film reminds me of Lost in Translation turned inside out (gratuitous note: Sofia Coppola, please stop making movies about bored upper-class Caucasian people). The two characters are in a small, quiet town, as opposed to the crowded and boisterous city of Tokyo. There’s that sense of being stuck and being lost, but the protagonists are ultimately reconciling with the idea of what needs to be their true home—for Casey, New Haven, for Jin, Columbus.
Columbus reveals how minimalist filmmaking can be very deliberate, emotional, and grandiose. It is sparse in its physical elements but never sparse in its emotional delivery. I highly recommend it! If you’re in San Jose, you can catch it at Camera 3.