Making a film like Columbus, the debut film by writer-director Kogonada, seemed like the most logical step to take after his insightful and superbly edited video essays (which have been produced for Criterion amongst others) begun to appear on the internet back in early 2012. Since then he has dissected everyone from Ozu to Linklater, his sharp eye and fresh perspective racking up millions of views and almost as many admirers.
His move into feature filmmaking is as effortless as many had hoped, bringing to the screen a story filled with beautiful visual flair and quiet humanity. It also draws out a career best performance from John Cho who is given the opportunity to demonstrate much more than in any of his previous roles (this was made before the release of Searching), and announces the arrival of a real talent in Haley Lu Richardson.
Kogonada gives his attention to the buildings of Columbus, Indiana, a town often referred to as the modernist architecture capital of America. Although, it is the internal design of one native resident, Casey (Richardson) and an out-of-town visitor, Jin (Cho), that evokes a human connection strong enough to bring these structures into sharp focus.
Jin is visiting his father who is a renowned local Korean architectural scholar and now on life support after collapsing on campus. Casey is a recent high-school graduate drifting along as a part-time librarian having delayed going to college to help her mother (Michelle Forbes) recover from a drug habit that almost destroyed her life. Where the son’s relationship with his father is near broken and distant, a daughter is willing to sacrifice her own future to ensure her mother stays on the straight and narrow.
Despite the age difference between the two being immediately apparent, their innocuous meeting quickly develops into a bond that allows them to voice their inner emotional conflicts. An obvious reference point would be Linklater’s Before trilogy, with Jin and Casey continuing to cross paths over the course of a few days, casually discussing their personal and family relationships while taking in the wonder of some of the standout buildings that characterise the local area.
Evolving their friendship into something more romantic would have been a misstep many directors would have made and Kogonada thankfully never displays any interest in venturing down that path. Potential relationships are teased in each of their own worlds, with the presence of Parker Posey in Jin’s circle, while Casey works alongside the chatty intellectual Gabriel (Rory Culkin). An easy casualness and genuine warmth quickly develops between Cho and Richardson and remains a constant throughout, their connection always intelligent and informative of their individual transformations.
Richardson’s Casey talks about the architecture in her city with a passion that asks the viewer to take a step back and recompose their own understanding of the bricks and mortar around them. Kogonada's ability to make Columbus look so stunning within each frame is matched by a wonderfully fluid script. It helps that he has picked two leads in Cho and Richardson that find the right rhythm of speech in every scene, the relaxed attitude often sounding poetical in tone.
Anyone who has seen one of Kogonada's video essays will know how precisely they are edited and each clip is meticulously selected and used to powerful effect. That approach is carried over into his filmmaking, with each shot in Columbus painstakingly constructed with humane purpose. Building structures feature as prominent characters alongside Casey and Jin who are seen through glass, inside reflections and underneath door frames. Not only does it highlight the wonder of the structures themselves, but also the words being spoken by the characters and their wider meaning.
The exact positioning of Kogonada’s frame could seem cold and distant in the hands of someone else but his informal dialogue turns Columbus into a subtly powerful and emotionally resonant drama. It creates a calm stillness that exists around the masks Jin and Casey put on daily to cover up their unhappiness. This is an extraordinary debut film from Kogonada that has now set a high water mark you'd like to believe he can match, and potentially even better, in years to come.