Rarely will images of mighty concrete and stone dwellings set against tranquil waters or a gentle spring shower resonate so powerfully as those on display every day in the southern Indiana city of Columbus, captured so breathtakingly in the film that bears its name.
I must confess, I knew little of Columbus, Indiana (it’s Vice President Mike Pence’s home town), prior to seeing “Columbus” the film.
But long after the credits rolled, I found myself revisiting many of the scenes I had just experienced courtesy of debut filmmaker Kogonada (who also wrote and edited this masterful work). His is a work of transcendent beauty, where words are key, but imagery even more profound. Dubbed the “Midwest Mecca of Architecture,” Columbus is home to monumental works by famed Modernist architects such as I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen. It is their work – a bank, a church, a bridge, a library, a school, utilitarian structures meant to adorn and more importantly, enlighten — that makes us question and feel. It is their work that serves as backdrops and, in a strange way, characters, in this sublime study of the human condition.
The story centers on Jin (John Cho), a Korean book translator who arrives in town after learning his father, a highly regarded professor of architecture, has suffered a massive stroke (though the malady is never specified) from which it’s unlikely he’ll recover. Theirs is a relationship of distance, in miles and emotion. We also meet his father’s onetime lover and former student, Eleanor (Parker Posey), whom we learn was also the subject of Jin’s childhood crush.
And then there is the multifaceted Casey (Haley Lu Richardson in a remarkable performance), a recent high school grad, library worker and so-called “architecture nerd,” who opted to remain in town to care for her troubled mother rather than head off to college. Casey and Jin meet by chance one day, and their relationship soon blossoms, but not as you might expect. Their conversations play out against the stories of the city’s famed architecture, their souls are laid bare amid the lines, circles, angles, use of space and color that define the world around them.
Elisha Christian’s cinematography makes wondrous use of asymmetrical angles (much like those of the town’s notable structures). Reflections in mirrors and impossibly wide shots consume long stretches of screen time. It is genius. Kogonada infuses these moments with erudite conversation, in some cases, the actors are completely off-screen, their dialogue taking a back seat to the visuals. Your eyes can’t help but feast on the intricacies of a building’s facade, or an apartment hallway, or the dark and inviting living room of the stately town inn. Look closely, for there is so much to see.
But there is so much more. At one point, Jin asks Casey what the architecture of a building makes her feel? You will be asking yourself the same question throughout this film. You may just be surprised by your answer. I know I was.
Superlative Films and Depth of Field present a film written and directed by Kogonada. Running time: 100 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Music Box Theatre. NOTE: Kogonada will participate in an audience Q&A at the 7 p.m. Sept. 8 and 4:15 p.m. Sept. 9 screenings of his film.