Columbus (2017)

Directed by Kogonada

Columbus - Still 1

Columbus is a poem of a movie, not unlike Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016).  Both films follow meditative characters in a small, cozy town as they simply sit and observe the art of everyday life.  In Columbus we’ll here lines of dialogue such as “…not a crisis of attention but of interest… are we losing interest in every day life?” and “…you grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.”

Set in Columbus, Indiana, a small town with deceptively modern architecture, a man in between youth and middle age, Jin (John Cho) develops a quiet friendship with 20-ish year old Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), centered around her keen interest in his dad’s architecture.

Jin is in town because his famous architect of a father has fallen into a coma.  Jin was never close to his father and so only looks at this trip as an obligation.  Soon he runs into Casey, an eager and quietly joyful young woman, in that meet-cute type of encounter that only happens in movies like these.  Based on how many times Jin and Casey run into each other, you’d think the town had a population of eight.

Columbus has several details like that which feel too neat.  The dialogue can be kind of clunky, offering us little beyond forced exposition, and even the two characters’ similarly strained relationships with a parent feel too cute.  In one scene, Jin mentions how this is life and not a movie, but in many ways it feels too much like a movie, at least for a film that might commend itself on mimicking life rather than other works of art.

But you know?  I really enjoyed this film.  A good movie has few flaws, but a favorite movie has flaws you can overlook.  This is one of those, at least for me.  Others are Frances Ha or Beginners or Your Sister’s Sister and The Puffy Chair.  They are movies that either have overlook-able flaws or flaws that I just can’t spot, though I’m sure they’re there, I just don’t care to look too hard to find them.

The flaws of Columbus are on the surface.  The characters are too much like ‘characters.’  They’re an accumulation of plot points, meant to add up to the big breakdown or the big clash of conflict.  Their backstories, their passions, all feel subservient to moving the story forward, and for a character study of sorts, there is little to study.

Jin’s distance from his father, and his relative ambivalence towards his father’s fate collides with Casey’s practice of pushing off her own future in order to help her mother overcome a recent drug addiction.  From the start these backstories feel too heavy-handed, too parallel.  We can figure out where it’s going, what life lessons they’re going to learn and how they will grow.

There is very little in this movie that surprises you, and the movie is made with little self-awareness.  Casey’s big breakthrough is earnest, and Jin’s compassion for her is similarly sentimental, though it might fall on deaf ears considering how much this feels like other movies.

The characters are flat, pretty to look at but pretty dull considering the conversations they share which are meant to be substantial, about life and the healing effects of art.  The conversations are a mediocre version of Before Sunrise, and the pacing of the story feels like a retread of Paterson.  Instead of committing to one particular direction (focusing on the architecture or the conversations between Jin and Casey), the story goes right down the middle, dipping a toe in either pond.

I’m a sucker for a good ‘walk and talk.’  I love the Before trilogy (Linklater), and if two interesting characters have something interesting to talk about, even if self-indulgent, I’ll walk with them all day.  It’s fun to watch people figure it out, like it’s a reminder that I, too, may one day figure it out.  Columbus could do so much more with the conversation between these two characters.  The actors are great, their line deliveries swell, but their conversation always seems to orbit the movie’s outline, getting us from point A to point B.  It’s like talking to a barista at a coffee shop as your conversation momentarily transcends the “how are you’s” and “I’m fines” and “do you have our rewards card” of a normal interaction to briefly touch on something more substantial only for the barista’s manager to walk by, intimidating the barista back into coffee-speak.

Right when Jin and Casey get somewhere, they’re back to addressing their backstory, moving the story towards the end of act 2.  It’s slightly irritating, but again, I forgive this because this is a nice hangout movie, in a strange way.

I love to romanticize small town America.  Columbus, like Paterson or Linklater’s Slacker and, in some strange ways, Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories as well, depict a small community of people, where life moves at whatever pace makes you most comfortable.  I want to hang out in Columbus, Indiana now, and I want to have endless conversations across Spring and Summer afternoons.

The film is centered around discussions of Columbus’ modern architecture, beautifully framing these easy to overlook buildings.  Casey describes how much she loves them to Jin, himself something like an art skeptic, though these conversations always center back to their respective backstories.

The best parts of this film are unconcerned with plot.  Some may find this movie boring in the same way I find Geostorm boring, but it’s the moments in between that occasionally come to life.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and the music might have been ripped straight from a yoga workout tape.  It’s slow, somber, consistent like the permanent echo of a lightly grazed gong.

The whole film is a sort of trance, between this music and the perfectly symmetrical shots, framing the modern architecture like it’s meant to hypnotize you.  If there’s a heaven, it might be something like this film’s depiction of Columbus, Indiana.

So when the movie doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere, it’s incredibly peaceful to look at and listen to.  But then we’re back to the slow reveal of Casey’s mother’s drug addiction or Jin elaborating on how he and his father grew apart, things that remind you that this is just another movie.

And it makes sense that this feels like other movies.  This is writer/director Kogonada’s first film.  He’s an accomplished video film essayist, and his works demonstrate an impressive knowledge of film history and theory.  He even said how this film is highly influenced by Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), considered by some to be one of the five or ten best films of all time.  That film, shot in a similar way with carefully blocked, stationary shots at eye level, is also about the relationships between adult children and their parents, specifically the way in which they grow apart over time.  Jin is somewhat eager to abandon the tenuous bond between him and his father, and Casey holds on too tightly.

Of Kogonada’s essays, one of them is on Richard Linklater.  It’s a beautiful 8 or so minute piece that I have probably watched two to three dozen times already.

So, Columbus is a bit of a clunky movie, but a heartwarming one nonetheless.  Kogonada demonstrates a worldview, something about the peace and poetry of everyday life, but the purity at the center of his film is weighed down by an obligation to fill out the plot points of a more conventional narrative.

Up Next: Sanshiro Sugata (1943), Murder on the Orient Express (2017), Thumbsucker (2005)

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