“I just think I should stay here.”
Does art matter? And if so, to what extent? Columbus ponders these profound questions with an intellectually sharp yet ultimately too familiar story. Full of thoughtful shots and studied still-life exteriors, it’s also a sneakily emotional picture that peruses the effects of parental absence on children – both young and old – still questioning their place in a world that they don’t feel is theirs (as evidenced through vacant eyes and bodies lost to the backgrounds). This is the feature debut from writer/director/editor and famed cinema video essayist Kogonda, and it’s a quaint tale about a Modernist Indiana town painted with the less-than subtle vagueness of a Impressionistic piece. Columbus initially feels like an awkward encounter with an absolute stranger because it comes across as so forgettable and pedestrian, but then it grows into something that is, for me, just shy of real resonance or permanence.
Jin (John Cho) is always a visitor/outsider throughout the film and a man in a relatively unknown place. He spends his career in Korea translating books, only now begrudgingly stateside after his estranged and well-respected Father falls into a coma. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he stumbles upon a spunky, smart, self-deprecating young woman named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson). The two share a stressed out cigarette drag. She works at the town library, obsesses over and digests the namesake city’s architecture, and plays a parent to her Mother Maria (Michelle Forbes) who’s a recovering addict of meth and of bad men. The relationship between Jin and Casey never felt organic to me, but luckily enough, the story is more concerned with shadow-boxing their similarities and their differences against one another instead of battering us with attempts at romantics. They might find each other attractive, yet we see that they’re mostly just interested in something/someone who feels new. Columbus feels this way as well.
As someone who loves character driven stories, Columbus’ stilted yet charming second act convinced me it was the best part, when in reality some thought has led me to believe it is the picture’s weakest portion. The dialogue itself is too workshopped and inhuman and rigid, all while the two leads are never allowed to improvise or to add personal touches to their characters in their rare conversational moments (Kogonada himself has said that what was written is what was said). Cho – a truly fine actor finally finding work in a suitable role – makes great use of his brows and his posture. Richardson – a breakthrough to anyone who didn’t see her in The Edge of Seventeen – weaponizes her eyes with blunt stares, coy smiles, honest tears. In a film that’s already a bit slow-paced (I’d love to have seen 10-12 aimless minutes cut), I think it’s possible it would have been a greater artistic success had it voiced even less. That may sound alienating, but this is no blockbuster crowd pleaser either, and it’d have suited Kogonada’s sightseeing and voyeuristic vision even more.
Where the film does mightily impress, and where Kogonada’s unabashed affinity for the late masterful Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu comes through, is in its static lenses. In the pieced together editing of long shots from hallways, walkways, alleyways, bridges, streets. They’re all methods of transportation for the layperson, mirroring most of Ozu’s filmography about the travails of the poor, especially his prestigious 40’s work with the “Noriko trilogy.” I’ve just recently embarked on a personal study of Ozu’s work. His films are patient and observant pictures that are relatable through their reflections on the parent/child dynamic, by standing back and observing/framing the various perspectives through which we can see the surrounding world. Kogonada’s debut feature definitely does not soar to the great walking and talking heights of Richard Linklater’s collaborative The Before Trilogy – which, I can only assume, is the result of such a stick-to-script production rather than a collectively creative endeavor – but it finds beauty and philosophy in landscapes, and manages to engage us there in deep thought.
In Columbus, we watch the natural progression of the landlocked dreamer Casey through Haley Lu Richardson’s calm performance. We don’t know the hell she’s been through, but she’s seen and experienced things, and has grown into a young adult afraid to leave a parent who doesn’t quite function without her. Casey’s circumstances are drastic; she’s a caretaker and a young woman who needs to get away to be her own person. And Jin represents her counterpart. He still drunkenly pines for his Father’s long-time assistant (an experienced Parker Posey), is swept up by the subtle beauty of this Midwest town, and unlike Casey, longs to leave his Father’s bedside (there’s a reason we never see Dad’s face, let alone fully enter the hospital room). Casey doesn’t want to leave but she should. Jin wants to jet off but knows that he can’t will himself to go. Columbus sparks quite a match with these opposite forces of nature. Like a good look at a great piece of architecture, the creases and crevices of the film suffuse us with purpose as we seek out meaning in a structure’s facade with pure strangers, and the powerful passivity of the film comes through in these elongated scenes where we look at characters as they focus in on something else, and the metaphor for artistic appreciation is able to evince itself at multiple levels. I never loved Columbus or its dependence on twee exposition and forced conversation, but I don’t think I that I could have admired its clear eye for striking imagery any more.
“You need to stop feeling bad.”
Rating: 4 out of 5