“Columbus” is a 2017 independent drama that marked the film debut of writer and director Kogonada, a successful video essayist and cinema student. The film stars Haley Jo Richardson and John Cho as Kasey and Jin, respectively. The premise brings Jin, a Korean-born man, back to the town of Columbus, Indiana, because his father is in a coma. While in Columbus, Jin meets Kasey, a mature and independent young woman. Weighed down by her mother’s drug addiction, Kasey has chosen to stay in Columbus, believing she owes it to her mother.
“Columbus” is a relatively underseen film and is frankly one that deserves more recognition for its brilliant pacing and lived-in quality. The film beautifully explores the balance of the human condition, coupled with past trauma and familial expectations, causing viewers to journey into their souls. The cinematography and framing of the film are incredible. Each shot is like a portrait you could frame in your home. This style of camera work is reminiscent of the Japanese auteur, Yasujirô Ozu, a heavy influence for Kogonada, which is especially shown in this film. Yasujirô is notorious for his framing and minimal camera movements. Throughout the film, there are scenes in which the characters traverse through rooms and spaces. The locked-off camera choice aids these scenes well. This technique drives home the “lived-in” aspect of the film.
Architecture is a key thematic element in the film. For Kasey, the beauty of structure allows her to see that she can’t let the guilt of not caring for her mother limit her future wishes. The two protagonists spark a friendship, frequently walking the city and gazing at the beauty around them.
There is an underlying sense of purpose and belonging in the film. Kasey is enamored with architecture, seeking higher education for it. However, her single mother has not taken care of her adequately, thus leaving Kasey to care for her in return. Kasey works at the local library and frequently discusses life outside Columbus with her friend Gabriel, played by Rory Culkin. The film is quite contemplative in that the main characters are dealing with events outside of their control.
A third important character should be noted, and that is the town itself, which is known for its unique, modern architecture, referred to as “the art of space.” The shot composition utilizes the architecture beautifully, often having the buildings speak when the characters are not.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Kasey and Jin take a late-night drive, inadvertently talking about healing in Kasey’s car. The conversation in the car is seen through Kasey’s eyes in her rearview mirror. The exchange moves outside where we watch them talk about addictions. The scene shows a beautiful exchange in the budding friendship. Kogonada could have easily filled the scene with various cuts but instead chose the locked-off, austere camera placement. It starts with Jin and Kasey having a late-night, alcohol-driven journey. It flips to the next morning when Jin finds out his father has taken a turn for the worse. Before this, we see Kasey return home to her mother, who’s wondering where she’s been. Kasey, either tired from her night out with Jin, or having just found out that her mother has likely relapsed, ignores the remark. We switch to Jin and his assistant outside of a hospital discussing the possibility of his father passing away.
Earlier in the film, we watch Jin and Kasey discuss the hospital’s design as reminiscent of a bridge. Jin notes the architect believed it to be a metaphor for solving mental health. Jin is at the hospital, again, under different circumstances. The scene culminates with Jin wondering how long he should wait given his father’s circumstance. His assistant, Eleanor, thinks he should stay so his father won’t die alone.
Jin grows emotional and remarks in a gut-wrenching tone that it’s not fair and that his father “never paused his life for me.” The fact that Jin’s remarks play out by this “bridge” after Kasey and her mother try to speak drives home the idea of balance in the human condition. Both characters are dealing with circumstances surrounding one of their parents. Kasey has her mother, though she is not present most of the time. Jin has his father; however, he is debilitated inside a hospital, and we see in the earlier scene that there is a deep resentment between father to son.
The script is simple in parts while also carrying a serious, intentional tone throughout. The dialogue between Kasey and Jin is comedic and easy going at times. An example of this is when Kasey notes Jin’s smartphone and he jokes about her simple flip phone. The script flips to the two discussing the need to move on. Specifically, Jin believes Kasey should move on and follow her dreams of being an architect. There is a scene near the end of the film in which Kasey and her mother are lying in bed. With Kasey soon to leave town, the two share a special, heartfelt moment. Her mother notes that she wished they would have gotten to spend more time together. A fleeting attempt, but one with a tough, emotional punch. The dialogue about the parental failures resonated deeply with me, specifically with Jin and his father.
“Columbus” is funny in parts while also delivering bouts of grief and emotions. A key factor for me was Hammock’s brilliant score for the film. Filled with deep atmospheric swells and guitar picking, the score is moving. Kogonada walks a fine line between a reverence for the town’s beauty and empathy for the relationships in the film. This film is pensive, but it is one that pays off in its rich visual language and respect to the power of cinema.