Columbus demands audiences to give their full attention, yet this command is given in whispers, not shouts. Each shot is carefully framed, each conversation purposefully paced and wonderfully written with sincerity and pathos. Quiet and deliberate, its form captures the complexity and subtlety of the human relationships it depicts. This is the architecture of human encounters. Columbus is as if Japanese filmmaker Yashujiro Ozu remade Lost in Translation and set it in the Midwest.
I am not very familiar with modern architecture as an art form, so I was cautiously intrigued by the premise of Columbus, a film about the lines and textures which shape our structures and environments. The town of Columbus, Indiana is apparently a sort of Mecca for modernist architecture buffs. The small city is home to an unusual amount of unique and interesting buildings expertly crafted with glass, steel, and brick. Filmmaker Kogonada utilizes these environments to house his characters’ revelations and heartache, the architecture itself inviting boundaries to be broken and vulnerability to break through. The two main characters, Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) come from strikingly different worlds, yet feel connected through their respective familial structures. Each has a strong personal obligation to a parent, one which keeps them stuck in Columbus. But Kogonada doesn’t treat the city as a purgatorial prison akin to the Bruges of In Bruges or the ennui-laden Tokyo of Lost in Translation. No, this Columbus is a city where beauty surrounds, highlighting and healing the brokenness within, an environment where these characters can brace and embrace each other as genuine companions.
Glass and mirrors punctuate nearly every scene in Columbus. The paradoxical wonder of glass is its ability to be transparent, emphasizing vulnerability, while at the same time creating invisible barriers and boundaries between people. We are seeing clearly enough, but it still remains through a filter–the connection remains indirect. In one particularly beautiful moment, Jin asks Casey why she loves a particular building. Kogonada films her response to Jin through the glass of the building she loves. The audience is unable to hear her explanation, but we don’t really need to–we can see her admiration and exuberance on her face through the glass. The window glass highlights the sincerity of the conversation. Yet mirrored glass also highlights the disconnection between people, as it does in a remarkable scene between Jin and Eleanor (Parker Posey), the assistant and protege to Jin’s father. In the bedroom of an inn, as they have a conversation about the budding friendship/mentorship forming between Jin and Casey, the faces of the two friends (and, perhaps, lovers) are only ever seen through the mirrors within the room. The keen structuring of this scene could feel gimmicky in lesser hands, but Kogonada’s choice here feels appropriate, turning what could have been a mundane conversation filmed in shot-reverse shot into a memorable cinematic moment.
I am writing this review weeks after viewing Columbus on the eve of my departure from Portland, OR to the town of St Andrews in Scotland. I watched the film with a wonderful friend and mentor. Now, in this wholly new environment, my eye is drawn upward to the cathedrals and castles, the grey-and-green bricks protected from the wind by moss and ivy blankets. I notice things differently here, a sort of comforting disequilibration, forcing me to look closer and foster greater interest in my surroundings. What I’ve found most fascinating and supportive is not the architecture of the beautiful churches, but the people within those buildings, the face-to-face encounters with newfound friends and colleagues and mentors. This is akin to what I experienced with Columbus, a beautifully crafted construct in service of its richly human characters.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5990474/