In Kogonada’s 'Columbus,' a Humanist’s Ode to Modern Architecture

John Cho in 'Columbus.'  (Photo by Elisha Christian; Courtesy of Superlative Films, Depth of Field)

The American Dream collides with the American Nightmare in Kogonada's feature film debut Columbus. That’s Columbus, Indiana -- not Ohio. If you’re not a self-professed “architecture nerd” like the director, maybe you've never heard of this Midwestern town with a population of approximately 46,000 inhabitants. If you are, you know some of the 20th century’s greatest modernist architects designed schools, houses, office buildings and churches in Columbus, Indiana, making it an unexpected mecca for the medium.

Kogonada films these structures reverently. His camera lingers on their facades, often for minutes at a time. He wants the viewer to take them in, to appreciate the achievements of modernists like Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Robert A.M. Stern, I. M. Pei, Gunnar Birkerts and Harry Weese. But Columbus isn’t a documentary or a biopic about any of these towering figures. Nor does it expand much on the history or motivations of J. Irwin Miller, the local industrialist who encouraged the architects to build there.

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in 'Columbus.'
Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in 'Columbus.' (Photo by Elisha Christian; Courtesy of Superlative Films, Depth of Field)

Instead, Kogonada -- also responsible for the screenplay -- places two characters, like living chess pieces, inside and against the visual riches of this skyline. Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), both adrift for different reasons, warm their backdrops -- environments made of glass, steel and concrete. Thematically, the filmmaker draws inspiration from the Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. There’s an epigraph from Ozu’s Tokyo Story that applies to both filmmakers: "As long as life goes on, relationships between parents and children will bring boundless joy and endless grief.”

Jin arrives in town after his father, a visiting architect giving a lecture, unexpectedly falls ill. Father and son haven’t been close, and this trip only further dislocates Jin as a stranger in a strange land. In a phone interview, the director talked about Cho’s reaction to his script, “I remember him saying to me, ‘As I get older, I just want to play quiet more.’ I want for him to have that chance to show us that range, which is so important. Most Asian American males that I know are really thoughtful, reflective, existential people who have these kind of conversations. And some of us know martial arts as well but we’re also mostly wrestling with what it means to be human. And I hardly ever see us having that kind of conversation. I want to see that more.”

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in 'Columbus.'
Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in 'Columbus.' (Photo by Elisha Christian; Courtesy of Superlative Films, Depth of Field)

Casey spots Jin outside the hospital. After they share a cigarette, the symbol of a lighted spark, she offers to be his tour guide on an architectural odyssey through the town. Both characters are facing down damaged relationships with a parent. For her part, Casey is a recent high school graduate working in a library while she figures out what, if anything, comes next for her. She’s comfortable in Columbus, but she’s also holding herself back from venturing beyond its borders and away from her mother.

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The mirroring drama that plays out between Casey and Jin is hushed. Despite the grandeur of these architectural monuments to human achievement, something forlorn and melancholy pervades the landscape. Kogonada addressed this unspoken contradiction: “There is something about the city of Columbus that really embodies both the hope and the limits of the fact that it's not a dream fulfilled. That it didn't create a sort of utopian town. It has its problems.” The director captures one exquisite exterior after another, yet he also includes portraits of the inner working life of the city: maids, factory workers and one character with a dispiriting backstory of methamphetamine addiction.

John Cho in 'Columbus.'
John Cho in 'Columbus.' (Photo by Elisha Christian; Courtesy of Superlative Films, Depth of Field)

Kogonada includes this story-line without a trace of melodrama. Before Columbus, the director was known for his short film collages for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, including homages to Richard Linklater and Ozu, directors he admires and, with this first film, emulates. More than a film nerd, he’s a devoted cinephile: “Most films are an escape from everyday life and when you walk back out into the world ... sometimes everyday life feels unbearable. It feels so slow and feels so undramatic that you just want to see another movie. But the thing about Ozu is after I would leave one of his films, I would walk back into the world of everyday life, and that world would feel actually more meaningful, and almost more poetic.”

Jin and Casey carry that cinematic somnolence with them, even when they meet during daylight hours. It’s the kind of leisurely discourse Jim Jarmusch’s characters share, as if the hurried present can’t find a way to intrude inside the film’s moving frames or the theater itself. To achieve this effect, the director said, “I knew that we were going to shoot wider, but it felt really important to me that it didn't feel like an alienating film.” Instead, Columbus is comforting, familiar.

To get the film produced, Kogonada made an unassuming pitch: “I said, ‘I want to make a bowl of ramen.’ That might seem modest. That might not even seem like it should be a meal, or a film, but it's the kind of meal that hopefully will stay with you and you'll just want to have it again."

'Columbus' is showing at Landmark’s Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas. It opens Friday, Aug. 18 at San Jose's Camera 3.

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