Columbus (2017)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Been re-watching some fave films of the past decade.

Cast, crew, etc.


Casey is a young woman living in Columbus, Ohio, a small city in a quiet part of America. She has finished college but has not moved on to the next thing yet; rather than grad school, she is killing time in a cul-de-sac job at the local library.

Jin’s father is a famed architectural scholar, who had come to Columbus to give a talk, but has had a stroke and fallen into a coma. Jin has come to town oversee what happens next; either aiding a convalesence, or arranging a funeral.

Both characters lives, are on pause.

Casey and Jin meet by chance and strike up a friendship, their conversations initially revolving around their shared love of architecture. While Columbus is a minor city, it has an amazing architectural legacy; in the 1950s a wealthy local businessman lured acclaimed modern architects from around the world, to design a new series of public and private buildings. Casey and Jin visit these, as do many real life tourists, and marvel at their elegant simplicity.

They have an instant rapport which provides them with a mutual safe space; both characters are guarded, but with each other they open up. Cautiously at first, they share their personal histories, and eventually move on to the emotional problems that are troubling them. Casey’s mother is a recovering methadone addict who she frets will relapse; there is an incredible scene where she reveals this casually, deflecting Jin’s questions with jokes and banter, before finally saying it matter-of-fact in a few simple sentences, as tears run down her cheeks (boy). Jin’s relationship with his father is complex; he feels unloved, neglected, and resentful at the pressure he feels now to act upset over his father’s illness. He is upset, but determined not to show it.

The ‘Modern’ school of architecture focusses on geometric shapes, clean lines, and rational, efficiency. There is something direct and unaffected about the famous buildings of Columbus, which mirrors the connection the two characters make with each other. As Casey and Jin talk about the buildings and discuss the ideas that lie behind their design, these same ideas help them come to grips with their problems. They can speak openly and honestly to each other, clearing the clutter away, reducing their thoughts to their simplest, most honest and unadorned versions.

It is something I think about all the time; art, any art, is not just something to look at, and not just something to stir your emotions, it is a means of making sense of the world. Creative expression gives abstract ideas a tangible form; and while the interpretation of art will differ for everyone, the process of interpreting it will allow your ideas to evolve. Watching a film, reading a book, looking at a building; observing art, is participatory.

This film would not work without the right lead performances, and both Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho are exceptionally good. Both have a terrific grasp of their complex characters, neither of whom is exactly what they appear. On the surface Casey is easy going, with a warm smile for everyone; hiding her deep seated anxiety and uncertainty, and also her ambition. She wants a lot more than she has, but is scared of the risk associated with chasing it. Conversely Jin is reserved, terse, a bit of jerk at times, hiding an underserviced need for affection. He wants to be loved, he wants to express his feelings, but feels he is not allowed to show this. The actors have wonderful chemistry, and their shared scenes are rivetting; remarkable when you consider they are mostly just long conversations, and these mostly about buildings.

First time director Kogonada, a video essayist who has produced analytical shorts for the BFI and the Criterion Collection, has also drawn inspiration from Columbus’ architects. His style is spare and minimalist; the camera rarely moves, and his shots are composed via clean lines of sight. There are occasional, inventive uses of angle and reflection, but this does not draw attention to itself; he also wants you to focus on the ideas behind the images, rather than their presentation.

A subtle, special film, without a wasted frame, full of powerful emotions, just below the surface.

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