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Columbus Design for Living

A video essayist’s meticulous first feature reminds us of modernism’s utopian roots.

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus
John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus.
Depth of Field/Nonetheless Productions/Superlative Films

It’s rare that a first-time director makes a film as quietly self-assured as Columbus, the superb debut feature from the popular video essayist Kogonada. This Nashville, Tennessee–based artist has produced commissioned work for the Criterion Collection and the British Film Institute, as well as more abstract and lyrical short films that live only on his fascinating-to-explore Vimeo page. The pseudonym he goes by is a tribute to Kogo Noda, a screenwriter who was a longtime collaborator with Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese master who spent five decades refining the form of the deceptively minimalist domestic drama.

Though it’s much more original vision than homage, Columbus shares Ozu’s knack for making a small space feel mysteriously capacious. That might double as a description of the town where the movie takes place and which gives it its name: not Columbus, Ohio, but Columbus, Indiana. The site of important public architecture by such modernist titans as Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, and I.M. Pei, this middle-American city is a place where nondescript strip malls suddenly give on to unexpected vistas of sleek futurist geometry: a suspension bridge whose cables rise up steeply to meet in a tentlike web; a slender brick column topped with an asymmetrically placed clock; an all-glass bank building that floats above the ground on slender pillars and glows like an alien shipping container from a not-unfriendly planet.

Columbus is also a world mecca for architecture tourism, which seems to have been the draw for the first two people we encounter there: a well-known Korean American architecture scholar (the actor playing him goes uncredited, perhaps because he’s only glimpsed at oblique angles and never speaks a line) and his protégée, apparent business manager, and possibly former lover (Parker Posey). As they’re admiring the exterior of one particularly austere public structure, the man suddenly collapses; he will spend the remainder of the film in the hospital, unconscious. This circumstance necessitates the flying in of his only son, Jin (John Cho), from his home in Seoul, South Korea. Jin is a translator who’s been estranged for some time from his distant, workaholic father; his resentment at being forced into the role of dutiful grieving son is evident, and he makes no special attempt to hide it.

In a separate but no less important storyline—this isn’t a movie with an A-plot and a B-plot—a young Columbus local, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), works a clerical job at the public library, a modernist landscape of concrete breezeways and light-filled atriums. Casey is a bright and curious girl, an architecture nerd who’s passionate about books and ideas. But she’s never applied to college—in the first place because she and her working-class single mother (Michelle Forbes) can’t afford it and in the second because, even when promising scholarship opportunities are dangled before her, Casey resists the idea of leaving the home she still shares with her mother, a fragile but functional recovering addict.

Inevitably, these discontented souls knocking around a small town in summer end up bumping into each other. One day Jin bums a cigarette from Casey. She deduces from their conversation that he must be the son of the visiting scholar, and they soon find themselves caught up in an intense but hard-to-define relationship: not sexual or romantic but emotionally intimate and at times confrontational. She drops by his hotel to offer a tour of her favorite buildings; as she waxes lyrical about one structure’s aesthetic qualities, he challenges her to drop the museum-docent patter and describe what the place means to her. The next shot, in which the sound drops out entirely as Casey launches into a heartfelt but inaudible-to-us monologue, emblematizes Kogonada’s oblique approach to storytelling. He prefers to withhold information where other writer-directors might ladle on more; it’s as if he’s determined to preserve some part of his characters’ privacy. Many—though not all—of the characters in Columbus love to talk about ideas; Casey’s colleague at the library (Rory Culkin), who nurses a not-so-secret crush on her, engages her in a lengthy philosophical debate based on some marginalia he encountered in a book. But this isn’t, in the end, a wordy or dialogue-driven movie. There are plenty of silent or near-silent scenes, and many others when the plain, fumbling words available to the characters bear little relation to the complex emotions beneath.

Most of all, it’s Kogonada’s camera that tells the story. Each shot is meticulously composed without appearing mannered; the characters, often seen from a distance, make up an integral part of the landscape they occupy rather than being framed picturesquely against it. We tend to associate modernist style with chilly formalism, but Columbus’ warm, luscious color palette—all deep oranges and bright, vegetal greens—reminds us of the utopian ambitions of the movement’s practitioners. The light-flooded rooms and bright, uncluttered interiors they created were intended as postwar designs for living, ways of rethinking everyday existence to make it more beautiful and functional. There’s a yearning expressed in those structures, a desire to rethink the world and one’s place in it, that’s shared by this movie’s unsettled and questing characters, all of them played to perfection by a committed cast. Columbus, which was released in early August, opens in more cities across the country this weekend. It’s a movie about the importance of gathering together to look at the world around us, so take a friend to see it on the big screen, and witness the arrival of a major new cinematic talent.