Columbus February 7, 2018
Haley Lu Richardson
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
here is a profound sense of loneliness hovering in the air of Columbus (2017), the video essayist Kogonada’s intoxicating directorial debut. Set in the titular Indiana town – noted as a haven of modernist architecture by locals and tourists alike – it watches as two alienated individuals try out a makeshift friendship while attempting to navigate respectively difficult times in their lives.
These people are Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), who initially seem to be a world apart but turn out to match in their emotional
maturity. Casey is a recent high school graduate who dreams of becoming an architect; Jin is a translator in town to visit his architect father, who has recently fallen into a coma from which he might not wake up.
Both are stuck in a self-imposed rut. Despite knowing exactly what she wants to do with her life, Casey refuses to attend any sort of university. Her mother (Michelle Forbes) is a recovering meth addict, and as such is she afraid of leaving her by herself. Jin knows he isn’t happy with his life or his job, but he’s become so used to his emotional numbness that he’s likely afraid of starting a new life that isn’t informed by misery.
Their coming into one another’s lives is almost happenstantial. By chance, Jin bums Casey for a cigarette on the street. They start chatting, and notice they get along. We’re reminded of friendships we ourselves might have made over the years — ones where a bond formed almost instantaneously and it was clear that the person standing opposite from us was going to be part of our lives for some time.
Shortly after their first meeting, they start walking and talking in a Jesse and Céline sort of fashion; most of their conversations revolve around the area’s architecture, with which Casey’s infatuated. Jin teases her for putting on something of a tour guide act. It’s great that you know so much, he indirectly says. But what is it, emotionally, that draws you to these buildings?
From there does the relationship start deepening. Although their current emotional states are comparable, both nonetheless seem well aware of what the other person needs, perplexed as to why they’re holding themselves back.
The rest of Columbus details their unusual friendship, which is friendly enough early on but becomes increasingly intimate the more secrets and anxieties are revealed. Also waiting in the wings are potential love interests: we get the sense that Casey might get together with Gabriel (Rory Culkin), a long-haired doctoral student and co-worker, and we wonder if Jin will swallow his pride and pursue a relationship with Eleanor (Parker Posey), his father’s assistant he presumably romanced in his college years.
Columbus is characterized by so little – it’s predominantly about Casey and Jin’s relationship and the extraneous ones which accidentally influence it – and yet it feels so monumental, so magnificently alive. I was reminded of two movies while watching it: Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), which was about a deaf-mute’s befriending of a lonely, wise-beyond-her-years teenage girl whom nobody seemed willing to try to understand. And Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), the thematically similar, instant-classic coming-of-age tale that has captured more mainstream attention in the past year.
These films circle around ephemeral relationships which come and go quickly yet end up being intensely important to the individuals affected. For a time in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, these two outcast characters felt as though they had found someone they could candidly talk to and not be undermined by their shortcomings. For much of Call Me By Your Name, we voyeuristically watched a summer fling so passionate that we concluded that what we witnessed was the kind of romance that can determine someone’s sense of self for a lifetime.
What these films have in common is their quiet weightiness: all the relationships focused upon last for such a short period yet manage to be defining periods for those impacted. And we can feel that.
How surprising it is that this is Kogonada’s first feature film. (He’s primarily known for his film essays, which can be found on his prolific Vimeo account.) Columbus is reminiscent of the best films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Wong Kar-Wai. Like those directors, Kogonada uses space, unusual composition, and limited dialogue to bring a specific brand of poeticism to the mundane lives of his characters. Not a shot is wasted, and neither is an innovative angle or a peculiar staging.
So many filmmakers struggle to find a harmonious relationship between their style and the written material. Contrastly, Kogonada almost symphonically uses atmosphere to heighten every emotion felt and every thought conjured up by these characters, whom we grow to care about immensely. (Richardson and Cho give career-best performances here.)
This is a beautiful film. It is also a comprehensively melancholy one. But the poignancy exhibited here is of the romantic kind: it’s overwhelming, unwavering – you could almost drown it it. But light creeps around the edges. We gather things will work out for these lost characters. And we hope they will: because Columbus is a movie so difficult to stop thinking about, a hint of closure goes a long way. A