In Columbus, the debut film from writer/director Kogonada, architecture looms over the characters literally and figuratively. Every shot is meticulously composed to create a linear breakdown of the space within the frame. Buildings, windows, bookcases, and picture frames are all perfectly placed, providing organization and order in a world that is emotionally messy and chaotic for the characters living within its meticulous geometry. The people stand in stark contrast to their surroundings, taking elliptical paths to connect with one another while their surroundings are immaculate and cohesive.
Wong Kar-Wai used frames within frames to great effect during the first fifteen minutes of his 21st century masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000). He used the technique to create a sense of claustrophobia, of neighbors living in such close proximity that they are forced to be voyeurs in the lives of one another. Door frames, windows, and staircases, all become portals into the intimate lives of characters that should remain hidden from public view. As the romance forms between the characters, the frames within frames fade away, replaced with larger spaces as the world around them begins to open up.
Kogonada uses the technique to opposite effect in Columbus, creating a vast world of apparent order, where every beam and pane of glass has a precise purpose. The world of Columbus is immense, but orderly. But, as the narrative unfolds, we see disconnected people, miscommunicating with one another and living in various forms of denial. Their carefully-composed surroundings emphasize their individual lack of reliability and self-doubt.
The plot is simple. Jinn (John Cho) comes to Columbus, Indiana, when his father suffers a major neurological event prior to a lecture at a local college. While Jinn meanders through the architectural wonders of the town, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson). As they learn about one another, so does the audience. The film is truly character-driven, avoiding the need for plot twists or happenstance to drive the story. The lack of a tightly-constructed narrative does not equate to self-indulgent navel-gazing. Columbus is always in motion, but doesn’t feel compelled to adhere to a standard three-act structure.
In Columbus, everyone is out of sync, seeking the kind of harmony that’s found in the buildings surrounding them. In one scene, Jinn orders a second beer while his dinner date asks for the check. In another scene, Jinn expresses the pointlessness of sitting vigil at his ailing father’s bedside. Moments later his father’s assistant chastises him for not spending more time at the hospital because being at his father’s bedside is so very important. Tour groups thread their way through the narrative, listening to guides explain the nuances of the town’s architectural wonders. Yet, the central characters reject the advice of others and continue to live in a state of emotional ignorance.
The performances are subtle, and it takes time for emotion to creep into the narrative. John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson avoid giving mannered performances. Their seemingly casual approach is perfectly gauged to the material. It reaffirms the old maxim that the best acting looks like no acting at all. By avoiding melodrama, Columbus earns its emotional beats in the final moments of the film.
Some will find Columbus to be stilted, a beautiful visual construct that lacks an emotional core. Give it time to resonate with you. Patience is rewarded with this film. Much like the magnificent buildings and bridges being admired by its characters, Columbus is really something to behold. It’s one of my favorite films of 2017.
Columbus opens in Landmark Theatre locations on Friday, September 8, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.