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COLUMBUS (2017) review

September 10, 2017

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written by: Kogonada
produced by: Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Aaron Boyd, Giulia Caruso, Ki Jin Kim, Andrew Miano & Chris Weitz
directed by: Kogonada
rated: unrated
runtime: 104 min.
U.S. release date: August 4, 2017 (limited) and September 8, 2017 (at the Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

“Columbus” is a reminder of what we can learn when we step out of our surroundings, out of ourselves and just observe and listen. It’s also a film that suggests what we can unexpectedly learn when we stay in the same place, appreciating what has always been around us. I arrived at such realizations well after my initial viewing of the feature film debut by a filmmaker known as Kogonada, yet while I was watching it I found myself enraptured by meticulously framed shots of art, architecture and people that are relatable and so easy to connect with. It’s a viewing experience that had me from start to finish, one that invited me to be transported from my life, which is rare. It touched me, continues to move me, and it has since become my favorite film of the year so far. 

The film is not set in Ohio, but Indiana; with the titular town being the county seat of Bartholomew County, a place with a history that boasts treasures of modern work from the likes of architectural luminaries as Cesar Pelli, I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese and others. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself scratching your head as to why such a place in Indiana was chosen to be a gallery for such influential architects. If not, then you probably already know that there are churches, banks, schools, libraries, theaters and a fire station, in this area that were built back in the 60s. Whether or not you knew that such an architectural splendor existed in Columbus, Indiana, you may not have considered the area in such a dreamlike manner as the writer/director has. It seems strange that a seemingly random town hosts such modernity, yet it’s also a delight discover.

Kogonada considers the harmony of space and structures here and the impact they have in their environment and those who happen to admire it all. The two main characters in “Columbus” do just that as they meet and get to know each other by chance. Jin (John Cho) is a translator from Seoul who flew into Columbus after learning his renowned architect father has fallen into a coma suddenly while in town for a speaking engagement. It becomes clear that Jin doesn’t have the same respect and admiration for architecture that his father’s associate, a professor named Eleanor (Parker Posey) shares. In fact, he seems to reject his father and therefore architecture, perhaps due to the rejection he’s felt from his father. Now, Jin finds himself pulled out of his world without an inclination as to how long he’ll stay around, internally conflicted by what to hope for in regards to his estranged father’s condition and recovery.

 

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While in Columbus, he meets a recent high school graduate named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who works at the public library and an avid appreciator of the architecture she was born and raised around. She is observant, open and friendly, while Jin is preoccupied, quiet and reserved. They strike up a conversation after she offers him a cigarette, and Casey soonoffers to take Jinn on a tour, pointing out the designs of the buildings in the area, the facts like how the library is a National Landmark designed by I.M. Pei. Jin learns that one of the reasons Casey remains in Columbus, sidelining plans for college, is so she can keep on eye on her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes), a former drug addict she lives with. They continue to run into each other – sometimes purposefully, other times coincidentally, which is what happens in a small town – and a mutual appreciation for each other develops as they both examine who and where they are in life.

There is much to admire in “Columbus”, but the one thing I appreciated as the film progressed is how Kogonada never developed a sexual relationship between Jon and Casey. This is good since at no point did I want them to. They are just fine the way they are. Learning about each other as they navigate their relationships with their respective parents is enough to deal, plus it never even feels like either of them are looking for anything else other than a connection, despite an obvious attraction between them. It proves that two people can meet and simply connect. They can just observe, admire and learn from each other.

The two main characters that inhabit are “Columbus” are relatable; they feel like people we know, maybe even ourselves. They are memorable primarily because of how Cho and Richardson portrays them, but it also because of the choice dialogue Koganada gives them and the freedom he offers them. One of the finest scenes of the film (maybe of the year) is when Jin and Casey first meet, walking along opposite sides of a fence that eventually opens up to the point where they stand together, no longer separated. It’s simple yet dazzling, thanks to the subtle ways in which the actors handle the scene and how Konogada quietly follows them. It reminded me of the random strangers that we connect with when we stand in line somewhere or someone we meet on a train and we wonder what their life will be like after they go their own way. In that sense, “Columbus” resembles Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy”, albeit without the eventual love.

 

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Watching Cho and Richardson portray their characters is as intoxicating as watching where Kogonada takes us and how cinematographer Elisha Christian frames each scene. The use of balance and symmetry is apparent, but never blatantly obvious. It feels very much how we would look at a building in person and how it fits in its surroundings, if we had the time to stop and acknowledge what’s around us. The film is a perfect marriage between fantastic actors and a passionate filmmaker determined to share his perspective on how we interact and connect with who and what is around us.

Just as Kogonada steers away from typical story beats, the decisions Cho and Richardson make are far removed from the conventions we might expect. Both performances thrive in the stillness of the moment, expressing so much without saying hardly a word. While we may have seen them separately in previous work (most know Cho from “Harold and Kumar” and “Star Trek” movies and Richardson stood out in “Edge of Seventeen” and “Split”), this is by far their best work to date. They both offer such natural and understated performances here, working out the specifics in how to respond to each other. I found myself actually sad when the film ended because I grew so fond of hanging out with them. I left wondering what would become of them. That’s how real they felt.

 

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Kogonada, who also impressively edited “Columbus”, is interested in his audience experiencing his film on a deeper, meditative level than perhaps they may be used to. When his camera pans up to a tree, we not only see the sunlight coming through the leaves, we also hear the wind blowing. The camera also takes its time following a brook and as the water moves over rocks we can also see the movement as the light reflects off the surface. He cherishes moments of stillness and in turn reminds us why we should as well. The director is primarily known as a video essayist, whose in-depth written essays have frequented the special features of choice Criterion Collection releases, yet what stands out here are his successful decisions.

There a few moments throughout “Columbus” where Kogonada fades out the dialogue during conversations with Jin and Casey.  There’s just a medium shot on the person speaking with no volume. It may seen odd at first but it’s a decision that emulates the way in which we often get lost in the when someone is taking to us, admiring how he or she is excited or dismayed about something they’re sharing. In real life it’s usually followed by a “Are you listening to me?”, but in “Columbus, it’s another great example of how we can relish moments and it only adds to confirm how Koganada has made a thoroughly engaging and confident debut feature. It’s a beautiful film that I can’t help but to recommend to everyone.

Although it may be unintentional, “Columbus” remind us that when we actually slow down and acknowledge our surroundings, it often produces needed introspection and identification of ourselves and the people around us. What I will remember most about “Columbus” is how it serves as a reminder to slow down and observe. To breathe in, to listen and to admire and appreciate.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ann Bookman permalink
    November 24, 2017 12:42 pm

    This is an amazing review of a breathtaking film.

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