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Writer/director Kogonada (one name only, like Rihanna) was working on his dissertation on the films of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu when he decided he wanted to become a filmmaker himself. The transition did not come quickly. First, he made a series of popular video essays about classic filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson. Now, finally, is his directorial debut, Columbus, which seems to reflect his inner turmoil. It’s an impressive, calculating film about a pair of loners torn between academia and the real world.
In his first significant dramatic role, John Cho (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Star Trek) plays Jin, a South Korean office worker who travels to Columbus, Indiana after his architect father falls ill. While he waits for him to recuperate, Jin strikes up a friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent high school graduate who is hanging around town taking care of her mother, a recovering addict, instead of going to college like her friends. Casey is interested in architecture but not sure if she wants to study. Jin’s father was a leader in his field, but Jin never cared about it. It’s a friendship made in movie heaven. They start by sharing cigarettes, but soon Casey is driving Jin around town, showing him the most beautiful buildings in Columbus.
If nothing else, you will leave Columbus with a new understanding of the little-known midwestern town that’s a haven for fine architecture. Kogonada puts the beauty of its buildings on full display. Hard lines and rounded edges are foregrounded. Each shot feels meticulously composed, with even his actors used as props in his grand design. When Cho and Richardson are in a two-shot, you can feel them holding still for fear of ruining the perfect geometry.
It’s not an ideal scenario to move an audience to passion, but Kogonada’s restraint often pays off in unexpected ways. Keeping his camera and his actors still, the small moments of humanity that pass between them often have the thrilling impulse of improvisation. In one scene, Casey gets the giggles at Jin’s phrasing when he asks about her mother’s drug addiction (“Does your mother do meth?”), and the moment somehow strikes a tiny universal chord. In such a controlled environment, every speck of freedom feels euphoric.
It’s a shame, however, that such moments are so rare. Too often, Kogonada lets the perfect be the enemy of the good, idealizing the friendship between Jin and Casey so greatly that it fails to have any real impact. For example, any chance of romance between the two of them seems remote, and although the possibility is raised late in the film, it feels secondary. There is something refreshing about seeing two people connect in a purely platonic way, with no expectation of a future together, but it also removes any real stakes. When Jin and Casey have their first fight late in the second act, are our hearts supposed to break a little? More likely, it will be met with a shrug of indifference at a relationship that always seemed ephemeral.
Instead, Columbus finds comfort in the permanence of buildings. Jin waxes poetic at one point about the healing power of architecture, that buildings are designed not for functionality but to offer sanctuary from the harsh world outside. To Kogonada, Columbus is such a building, an enclosed space where we can contemplate our station and maybe make a fleeting connection, not quite alive but still rich with meaning. Columbus opens Friday at E Street Cinema.