“Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” —Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
A father is sick and the son is beckoned to his side. Though the set-up may be familiar, the execution is anything but. This is Columbus, the first movie from writer/director Kogonada, a video essayist of considerable reputation, and little of Kogonada’s acute eye is lost in the leap from three-minute analysis to a feature-length narrative.
Columbus is the story of two wayward souls who come together in the town of Columbus, Indiana. He is Jin (John Cho), the son of an architecture scholar who has fallen into a coma from which he will not wake. Doing what must be done, Jin puts his work in Seoul, South Korea on hold to be by his father’s side — even though dear old dad was rarely by his.
She is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson); a young architecture enthusiast who abandoned her studies when mother needed some parenting of her own. As is the habit in these types of movies, Jin and Casey come together and enjoy each other’s company while biding their time in limbo. He waits for his father to die; she waits for her real life to begin.
Standard stuff, but in the capable hands of Kogonada, Columbus is anything but. Known as a mecca for modernist architecture, Columbus, Indiana sports buildings and structures crafted by I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, and many others. Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian match their deliberate and spare styles by making every shot count. And not just the framing of each shot but also the placement of the characters within the frame and at the foot of these buildings.
Both Jin and Casey lift their heads toward the sky and wonder what secrets these buildings hold. Casey has her ideas and for the most part, they work. But Jin is looking for something a little deeper. He is wondering what his father saw in these buildings. If he can find it, will he understand his father better?
The same can be asked of Kogonada, clearly a student and ardent admired of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu. Can a director better understand another director, a father figure of sorts, by cribbing their style? Can they understand the world through their eyes? In a manner of speaking that is what cinema aspires to: communicate an experience by looking through someone else’s eyes.
There is a scene midway through Columbus where Jin asks Casey what a building she loves means to her. She smiles and starts to explain, but Kogonada drops the sound out. We are left in silence with only her smiling face to study as she describes something important to her. Her hands trace an invisible box as if she is illustrating the frame of a building. She might as well be describing the movie frame.