Movie Review: 'Columbus'
Film language beautifully underlines lovely drama in 'Columbus.'
The film language of Columbus is quite striking. Director Kogonada elegantly eschews expository dialogue in favor of allowing his camera to deliver essential information. The story of Columbus centers on a pair of lost souls, Jin, played by John Cho, and Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson. Jin and Casey bond over the architecture in the city of Columbus, Indiana, which has a unique architectural history to it.
Architecture is a major theme of Columbus, as Kogonada puts the incredible designs in Columbus in the foreground but never at the expense of his characters. The architecture of Columbus compliments the characters and their evolving friendship, often marked by Casey’s list of her top five favorite buildings in Columbus. The architecture of the buildings is a great deal like the architecture of this budding friendship with its unusual foundation, and the use of glass, a hallmark of the city’s architecture, and a strong reflection of the growing transparency of emotion between Jin and Casey.
You may think from my description that you know where this story is headed, some sort of romance between Jin and Casey. You are not entirely wrong but you are not entirely right either. I will not spoil it for you; I will only say that Columbus is much smarter and more thoughtful than some romantic comedy. This is a character study and Kogonada has constructed a pair of very compelling and complex lead characters.
That is enough of a description for you, so let us return to film language and highlight why I love Kogonada’s direction; especially considering this is his first feature and he demonstrates tremendous craft for a first time feature filmmaker. Part of the story of Columbus concerns Jin’s father, having traveled from Seoul, South Korea to Columbus for a talk on architecture. While there, he falls ill and into a coma and this brings Jin from Korea to Columbus.
How do I know this? It is not because of the character of Eleanor, played by Parker Posey, tells us this information in some exposition dump. Rather, Kogonada uses scene setting and editing to set this story. In the first minutes of the film, we watch as Jin’s father is touring around Columbus with Eleanor. We never see his face or here him speak. We watch as he begins to walk away and collapses to the ground.
Cut to Jin arriving at an ornate, architecturally brilliant, bed and breakfast. We see him arrive there and we know that the man described as a professor in a previous scene is his father not from dialogue but the fact that Jin is staying in his room at the inn. The father’s materials, architectural drawings, are spread across a coffee table. No dialogue has even begun to tell us the connection; we simply infer it from the editing and scene setting.
Slowly we get to know Jin via his friendship with Casey. She recognizes who he is via several signifiers. First, she saw him arrive at the hospital, an architectural favorite of hers, in the middle of the night. The following day she overhears him on the phone outside the bed and breakfast speaking Korean and makes the logical leap that, he is related to the professor whom she was going to see at a speech that night before he fell ill.
The two bond over a discussion of architecture though, interestingly, Jin professes that he is not a fan of architecture. Jin’s strained relationship with his father has caused him to back away from the thing that has defined his father’s life. That said, Jin’s continued interest in listening to Casey talk about the local architecture, even taking him on a tour of her favorite spots, indicates that he may still have a soft spot.
You are likely thinking that Jin’s interest is prurient, that he is interested in Casey and not the architecture. Perhaps that is true, but the film is much more careful than that. The attraction between the two is muted and much more friendly than romantic. That said, Kogonada does a wonderful job of framing the relationship, bringing them closer in frames, though smaller, often to the side of the frame while the architecture takes up most of the field of vision.
Why is the architecture front and center? It is an essential part of their bond. Without these incredible buildings, these two people would never meet. The architecture and the conversations about the architecture, how it came to be, what the buildings represent, and how the architecture makes each of them feel is central to how they come together and grow as friends.
Kogonada’s use of signifiers throughout Columbus is skilled and artful. Doorways and mirrors are recurring, meaningful motifs throughout the film. A scene set inside Casey’s car shows her and Jin looking at one of her favorite buildings in Columbus. However, the only thing that is in focus in the scene is the rear-view mirror focused on Casey’s wide, sad, eyes.
In the scene, Casey is sharing a memory of her life with her mother who has struggled with drug abuse and is a constant worry to her. She is looking back and the rear-view mirror, which might come off as pretentious to some, is a lovely way of watching a scene that is centered on reflecting the past. Kogonada uses the mirror-memory motif again later in the film, when Jin and Eleanor are reflecting on their past, centered on his father.
Doorways also figure heavily in Columbus. Much like life, Kogonada uses doorways as transitions from one scene to the next. He doesn’t do this by floating the camera through a doorway but rather by setting the camera outside the doorway, looking in at the characters or staring out to where they have gone. The camera is static; the doorway is set in an establishing shot and editing transitions from this establishing shot to the next scene. The film is essentially using film language to go through the door rather than pushing his camera around in some showy fashion.
I am perhaps being overly precious and pedantic about the use of film language but it means something to me. I realize that most readers simply want to know whether the movie is worth watching and it most assuredly is. I wrote this because I want you, dear reader, just for a moment, to consider the way in which you watch a film. You do not have to watch passively, it is okay to take note of something visually or audibly interesting.
Film language, really good use of film language, only enhances a good movie. Some will argue, quite fairly, that if film language stands out too much it can be distracting or too obvious; that it can break your visual bond with what you are watching. That is true, but I believe the film language of Columbus is so good and so well crafted that it simply made a good story so much more meaningful.
Kogonada’s skillful and artful use of film language in Columbus works in unison with a pair of wonderful lead performances by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. The skillful underlining of these characters and their interactions via Kogonada’s use of film language deepens our connection to them as characters. The editing and the show don’t tell nature of Kogonada’s direction, only helps these two terrific actors take a relatively minor story and make it something so much more.
Sleek, modernist architecture leavened out by a story of two messy lives filled with grief and confusion. It is natural that these beautiful, entrenched structures would come to appeal so deeply to a pair of characters who lack a firm structure in their lives. That juxtaposition of these sturdy yet beautiful structures against the story of two lost, striving, sad, souls is wonderful and deeply moving.
Columbus is now available on Hulu.