Kogonada is known to many a film student for his creatively edited video essays for the Criterion Collection. (You may recognise this one about Wes Anderson.) With ‘Columbus’, he steps behind the camera for the first time — which is quite surprising considering the film feels like it was handled by a seasoned auteur. I’ve never been on a yoga retreat but I imagine it would feel like ‘Columbus’ — it’s peaceful and serene, and I want to revisit it again and again.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a high school grad with a passion for architecture — her hometown of Columbus, the Mecca of modernist architecture is a giant playground for her — as she rattles off facts about the buildings around her on her smoking breaks from the library like she’s a tour guide. She’s reluctant to go to college because she feels she has to take care of her mother who is recovering from meth addiction (“You know, meth is a big thing here. Meth and modernism.”) She crosses paths with Jin (John Cho), a Korean translator who has come to Columbus after his architecture professor father collapsed. They talk about architecture and family, and a wonderful friendship blossoms between them. (Romantic possibilities are suggested but never followed through, which is probably for the best.) Richardson and Cho are one of the most unlikely but inspired of pairings, and their dynamic is fascinating. They are almost polar opposites, but slowly they come to depend on one another, learning about each other helps them learn more about themselves — those are the best kind of friendships, the ones that make you want to be a better person.
‘Columbus’ is a contemplative and meditative work that luxuriates in quietness. The pace is slow, but never unbearably so — you know that when a shot is held for longer than usual, there is a reason for it. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Kogonada (along with cinematographer Elisha Christian) breathe life into the city, allowing you to appreciate the beauty of its architecture as much as Casey does. The shots are composed with extreme precision but not to the extent of, say, David Fincher or Wes Anderson whose camera feels impersonal and omnipresent. Instead, every frame is imbued with warmth and humanity — a more inviting presence that makes the story emotionally potent. The film has as much to say in its moments of silence, as in the moments filled with voices. You unwittingly become so invested in these characters, and it hits you out of nowhere.
The film is small in scale, but big on ideas. It shines a light on a city rarely shown on screen; it deals with topics such as responsibility, family, and loneliness. What resonated with me the most is the message (at least, the message that I took from the film) about pursuing your passions. Architecture has made such a profound impact on Casey, maybe it’s a temporary escape from the hardships of supporting her mother. She lives and breathes architecture at any opportunity she has available, but she feels unable to fully pursue it. Jin pushes her to do what she loves because she never did. As cheesy as it sounds, following your dreams is what makes you happy.
‘Columbus’ will be available on iTunes in the US on the 3rd November 2017. It currently has no UK release date. Tweet me your thoughts at @muchadocinema or @yorgosianthimos, or comment below! You can read the rest of our London Film Festival coverage here.