Set in the unlikely modernist architecture mecca of Columbus, Indiana, South Korean director Kogonada’s first feature film weaves the stories of Jin (John Cho), a Korean man who rushes to his estranged father’s bedside when he falls into a coma, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young local woman who seems stuck in place as an emotional and social anchor for her mother who struggles with addiction and poor choices in men. Kogonada’s Columbus is story of cultural and interpersonal connections. He presents a world of exquisite and painstakingly composed beauty, counterbalanced by a shaky, crumbling, and all-to-predictable narrative.
Columbus, Indiana is a small manufacturing town in southeastern Indiana. Decades ago, thanks to a generous bequest from Cummins, one of the companies based in town, Columbus began a longstanding tradition/mandate of hiring the top architects from around the world to design and build all public buildings and prominent commercial structures around town. As a result, Columbus boasts, banks, libraries, churches, bridges, corporate headquarters, and hospitals designed and built by the likes of Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi, and Kevin Roche.
It is against this backdrop that Kogonada sets his story. The opening is an homage of sorts to modernist design, as the camera follows “The Professor”, Jin’s celebrity architect father, and his assistant Eleanor (Parker Posey), around and through a number of these famous structures. When this quiet, stoic, coldly intellectual figure collapses amongst the very things that have given him life, it’s a moment that looks so staged that it’s hard not to laugh, which is clearly the wrong emotion. But the fallen figure looks so frail amidst the towering restructures around him that I heard a number of snicker-snorts around me. And yet, Kogonada’s frame is still spectacularly balanced, as if the intended message is that death should still be “composed”, formal, and ordered.
That composure follows through (for a while) as Jin arrives from Seoul to stand by his father’s side. But it quickly becomes clear that there is no love lost between Jin and his father. Yet Jin still feels deep sense of mournful obligation (in keeping with well-ordered Korean society) towards his father. And, while he shares some of this with Eleanor, it’s not until he meets and connects with local part-time librarian and full-time attendant to her self-destructive mother, Casey, that we begin to unravel the many strands of Jin’s (and by extension Casey’s) parental conflict.
From this point onward, Jin and Casey (Cho and Richardson) share incredible chemistry, and, by turns, credibly tease bits of backstory from one another in a relationship that seems destined to turn sexual, but, instead teeters on the brink of anger, and even resentment as they waffle between intimate trust, and the fear of having revealed to much of themselves. Ultimately, they bond over their sense of familial obligation, and a need to belong somewhere and connect to someone, anyone.
In addition to the exemplary work of Richardson and Cho, Parker Posey is superb, if underutilized, as Eleanor, the professor’s assistant, and Jin’s counterpoint emotional entanglement. Likewise, Rory Culkin is engaging as Casey’s on-again, off again local boy/co-worker infatuation.
The interplay of characters and conflicts set among the stunning spectacle of prize-winning architecture plunked down in the heart of the American Midwest marks Kogonada’s film as a carefully crafted exploration of culture, place, and art, as well as notions of social obligation and expectation. It packs a lot in (perhaps too much), and, while beautiful, often falls short of the mark. At times it seems like an intellectual exercise intent on pleasing itself (it’s a bit like grand architecture itself in that regard).
In the end, Columbus is a beautifully composed feast for the eyes, with a story that is simultaneously compelling and underwhelming. If you like film for visual reasons, you’ll be richly rewarded. But if you’re looking for a strong and inventive story, you’ll probably be disappointed.