Directed by Kogonada
“Your mother, did she do meth?”
Columbus looks to have been made with other films in mind. At one point during the soothing, walk and talk movie, Jin (John Cho) points out to Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) that their respective problems aren’t easy to solve because, this “isn’t a movie.”
It’s one of those lines that almost always feels a little too clunky, a little too self-aware, a little too cutesy. Kogonada’s film imitates real life, but it does so through the lens of narrative cinema. Even the attempted realism of this charming, small town story can be taken straight from the works of Richard Linklater, while the framing can be traced to the works of Yasujirō Ozu and Wes Anderson.
It’s because of the movie’s heart that I find it compelling, but it’s the self-awareness and references to other films that still keeps the story at arm’s distance. Though I love what Jin and Casey are working through, what they discover within shared conversation and the world in which they wander, I never felt like I was peeking inside a slice of our real world. To me you can clearly see the seams of this film, even if it is quite beautiful to look at, like glancing through a talented artist’s sketchbook.
Still, I’m enamored with the world of Columbus, Indiana that we see onscreen, as well as I’m enamored with actors Richardson and Cho. I enjoyed being around them, and I wanted to watch them interact. I just didn’t care much for what they had to say because at times it feels too formulaic. Once we understand who they are and the ways their backgrounds compliment each other, their dialogue becomes weighted with the obligations to move us towards their falling out and eventual catharsis.
This is a story that simulates real life, but it’s spectacular and mundane at the same time due to the occasional limits of narrative cinema, when a movie has to end by a certain time and thus hit particular emotional beats at a certain interval to sustain audience interest.
Columbus is a slow movie. That might imply a disinterest on Kogonada’s part to spoon feed the audience, but as the story goes on, those conversations between Jin and Casey begin to feel much more predictable, propelling us towards the film’s narrative obligations.
At the same time not much happens in the story, but it’s framed in the context of a familiar storytelling arc. They meet, they get along and discuss their respective personal challenges, then they each push the other to overcome those challenges, but in doing so alienate themselves from the other by striking a nerve. Then, with enough time passing, they acknowledge the things that need changing and take the first steps towards fixing them.
It’s a nice story, simple and risking cliche but immensely relatable and thus always welcome.
The film is like Paterson (2016) and A Ghost Story (2017). Characters wander and observe, and their passivity makes them ghost-like. It’s a wonderfully meditative, at times eerie atmosphere. Everything is so still. It’s not just the tone or the visual emphasis on architecture but as well the cinematography and even where the characters are at in their lives. Jin and Casey are stuck, and the film makes us feel it. Moments linger, many scenes are filmed from a single angle, and if you ever find yourself a little bored, well then you get an idea of what the afterlife might feel like.
Jin is back in town to visit his dying father, a well-known architect whom Casey adores. He has a troubled relationship with his father, and he’s only come here out of a sense of obligation.
“There’s this belief that if you’re not there when a family member dies, your spirit will roam aimlessly and become a ghost.”
And that’s what Jin does. He wanders through his father’s house, tinkers with his belongings and in a sense tries to walk a mile in his father’s shoes. He is working to overcome the resentment he holds while Casey spends her time slowly accepting that it’s time for her to leave home.
In order for Jin and Casey to embark on their next journey, they must come to appreciate what’s come before. In doing so they will recognize their place in the world and better contextualize the value of their actions and decisions.
The focus on architecture is a way to demonstrate the impermanence of everyday life. Jin and Casey are just passing through, like everyone else in life, and the beautiful man-made structures are symbols, something about our inherent desire to create something long-lasting. They rise out of nothing and loom large, meant to be admired and in some ways feared. The longer these buildings remain, perhaps, the more they contrast with the fleetingness of our own life.
Stories like this tell us to appreciate the small things because they won’t last forever. We know this from Columbus not just because of the nature of the story but so too because of a few speeches given by a side character, Casey’s friend, Gabriel (Rory Culkin). In one scene he speaks of the difference between interest and attention, and in another he describes the growing lack of interest in every day life. What Kogonada wants to tell us is clear, and Gabriel seems to be his mouthpiece, just like with the unnamed party guest’s monologue in A Ghost Story.
This is an imperfect but aspirational movie. It’s remarkably self-assured for a first time director, but Kogonada doesn’t feel like a first time director. If you enjoyed this film, you’ll likely enjoy the many video film essays on his vimeo channel. He understands and appreciates the medium, and it’s pretty awesome to see him start to take part in the conversation.
EDIT: I visited Columbus, Indiana. It’s even smaller than I thought, and it was Sunday, so everything was closed.
Up Next: American Animals (2018), Eighth Grade (2018), Sorry to Bother You (2018)