When a Korean professor is taken ill on a tour of the United States his estranged son (John Cho as Jin) is displaced to Columbus, Indiana where he must wait for news on his comatose father’s condition. In limbo he meets a teenage librarian named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a student of life who had planned to attend the scholar’s cancelled lecture on modernism. Surprised to learn that Jin doesn’t share her passion for architecture, she takes him on a tour of her favourite buildings, while Jin attempts to reconcile his new friend’s enthusiasm with her apparent lack of ambition.
The feature film debut of esteemed video essayist Kogonada, who directs from his own screenplay, Columbus is often as scintillating in its observations as it is cinematic in its composition. It’s a film for which context is as important as character, and as such feels less like a traditional coming of age saga or romantic drama than it does a progressive tale of enlightenment. Columbus, Indiana, is a place of pilgrimage, a modernist mecca, and though both of the main characters might be natives (Jin having moved to Seoul later in life) there is a distinct sense that each has been on their own journey to get here.
In this regard Cho and Richardson are revelations, each standing on foundations as strong as those of any building – at least, in their own minds. Cho has taken on dramatic and leading roles in the past, but nothing that has felt more nuanced and dynamic than his portrayal of Jin, a translator in self-imposed exile from two separate worlds, each with their own traditions. Meanwhile, Richardson, last seen in Split, is as precocious as she is prudent, seemingly content to indulge the whims of others – whether it’s listening to the philosophical diatribes of her co-worker (Rory Culkin as Gabrial) or worrying after her meth addicted mother (Michelle Forbes) – so that she can one day secure the scripted duties of tour guide.
It has become something of a cliche to say that a film’s setting is a character in its own right, whether it’s Wakanda in a fantasy such as Black Panther or Tokyo in something more down to earth like Lost in Translation, but it nevertheless bears repeating here. Kogonada is clearly as taken with the city’s architectural heritage as his characters, and the buildings of Columbus – particularly the library in which Casey works and the house in which Jin waits for news – affect his protagonists in very real ways, with cathartic results. Certainly, by film’s end the notion that some buildings might have certain healing properties doesn’t seem nearly as fanciful as when it is first floated.
Columbus won’t be for everyone, something that Kogonada seems to address in one of Gabriel’s more insightful rants questioning the premise (and indeed pretense) that certain mediums are more interesting than others simply because they demand greater attention. His conclusion, that people reserve their attention for that which interests them, seems to absolve both himself and his audience of responsibility for any disengagement. From a modernist perspective, however, perhaps the point is moot: by focusing on function over form, Kogonada’s innovative approach has produced a film that perfectly facilitates the unique talents of all involved — whether it’s appreciated or not is simply a question of taste.