An intriguing trailer and a friend's recommendation got me to the theater for Columbus. I came without expectation, with little notion what the film is about, director unknown, actors all but unknown. And I found myself transported, almost enchanted. I love it when that happens.
A Korean man and a young American woman cross paths by chance against the backdrop of a town with a remarkable story, also unknown to me, in this lovely, softly melancholic film that takes up themes of family, duty, connection and its absence, and the capacity of art and beauty to touch us deeply but not by themselves to save us.
Jin (John Cho) comes to Columbus, Indiana, from Korea after his father, a famous architectural scholar in town to deliver a lecture, collapsed outside the inn where he was staying. The father lies unconscious in the hospital, his recovery uncertain. They have no relationship because Jin's father was never interested. They have not spoken in more than a year. Jin is tightly wound, anguished, unable to disentangle bitterness, filial duty, and whatever other feelings he may have toward his father. "How long do I stay here?" he asks Eleanor (Parker Posey), his father's devoted colleague, who addresses the old man as Professor. "As long as it takes," she tells him.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young woman a year out of high school with a part-time job at Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, a building designed by a young I.M. Pei, with a Henry Moore sculpture out front. Intelligent and engaging, Casey has a keen interest in architecture but no thought of pursuing it because she has to look after her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict. Despite some difficult times the bond between them runs deep. Maria is off drugs and working, but Casey lives with anxiety that she will fall back into addiction. People tell her she should go away to college. She is smart and talented, she could do better. "Than what?" she asks.
Then there is the city and its remarkable story. It turns out that Columbus, with a population of 45,000, is a mecca of modernist architecture, with more than 70 buildings designed by internationally renowned architects, among them Pei and Eero Saarinen, names even I recognize. It boasts seven national historic landmarks. The American Institute of Architects ranked Columbus 6th among US cities in architectural innovation & design, behind Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Lady Bird Johnson dubbed it Athens of the prairie.
Casey and Jin meet outside the library when while taking a smoke break she overhears him speaking in Korean on the phone as he fields a call from his employer, which is hounding him about a project with a deadline looming. He tells Casey why he is in Columbus and explains that in Korea they say family is most important, but really it's work.
Soon she is showing him the sights and sharing her near encyclopedic knowledge of the city's architecture. He professes little interest but goes along good-naturedly. Each is troubled, and Casey is as reserved and reticent after her own fashion as Jin is. They fall into a kind of companionship. Slowly, in subtle ways, not consciously, not trying to do it, they nudge one another toward glimmers of insight, as when Casey tells Jin maybe he doesn't want his father to recover. "Maybe not," he says. Or when Jin interrupts Casey's description of a building to ask why she likes it. She launches back into description, at which he interjects, not the tour guide description. Why do you like it?
I can only marvel at the care and craft with which Kogonada composed his film. Much is suggested, and as much is said by silence, glance, expression, and objects in the world around us as with words. Emotional moments are all the more moving for the restraint with which they are conveyed. Kogonada never shies from stillness and silence. Shots—a hallway, a dazzling building, rain falling on an open space with lush trees at the far border, a sculpture in a park—are held patiently to paint beauty, feeling, emptiness, solitude, and a questioning for which no ready answer is offered.
Columbus concludes with a suggestion of hope and possibility and resolve. I left the theater feeling better than I did before. This is a film I would want to make if I were a filmmaker.
Columbus is the first feature film by Korean-American writer and director Kogonada, a pseudonym taken as a tribute to Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu’s screenwriting partner, Kōgo Noda (Ehrlich, Supercut Guru Kogonado).
Kogonada on his work:
My family and I immigrated to the U.S. when I was a child. My parents are immensely creative, but like many immigrants, their days were dominated by work. Nonetheless, my father passed along an aesthetic mindset. He’d often find a piece of wood and say: ‘Look, this is art.’ To me, it just looked like a branch, but he would go on about its form: the curve, the balance… I realize now that he wasn’t making a statement about art, but a way of seeing — as if to say, it’s our responsibility to attend to the form of things… I think in some ways, the pieces I’ve created are an echo of my father picking up a piece of wood and telling me to look, to see. (quoted in Filmmaker)
On film and sushi:
With sushi, every cut matters. And so do the ingredients. Those two ongoing choices are the difference. What you select, and how you cut it. I think the same applies to the pieces I’m trying to make. (quoted in Ehrlich)
J. Irwin Miller (1909–2004) joined Cummins, Inc., the family business, in 1934. From 1944–1977 he served successively as vice president, president, and chairman and CEO. The Cummins Foundation architecture program began in the 1950s when Miller proposed a partnership will the school board. The foundation would donate design fees for a new school if the architect was chosen from a list prepared by the foundation. The foundation went on to contribute the design fees for other schools, and the program was eventually expanded to include any public, tax-supported building in the county.
Miller said that "what is built reflects what a city thinks of itself and what it aims to be." Columbus hits a high mark. Fifth Street is known as The Avenue of the Architects. This one short street, less than a mile in length, boasts two national historic landmarks and buildings designed some of the most prominent architects of the second half of the twentieth century. The buildings are accompanied by magnificent landscape designs, sculptures, parks, and green spaces.
In the film Jin stays at the Inn at Irwin Gardens B&B, a 1910 Edwardian mansion that was the childhood home of J. Irwin Miller. It so happens that Irwin Garden is the name given the character based on Allen Ginsberg in several novels by Jack Kerouac (Big Sur, Book of Dreams, Desolation Angels, The Vanity of Duluoz, and Visions of Cody). A cursory search did not turn up any clue as to where Kerouac got the name.
David Ehrlich, Supercut Guru Kogonada: How He Leapt from Small Screens to Sundance NEXT with the Mysterious 'Columbus,' IndieWire, January 18, 2017
Kogonada, Filmmaker post from "25 New Faces of 2014"