Columbus John Cho Haley Lu Richardson reviewYear: 2017
Director(s): Kogonada
Writer(s): Kogonada
Region of Origin: US

Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 100 mins

Synopsis: A man finds himself stuck in Columbus, Indiana, where his architect father is in a coma. There, he meets a young woman torn between her dreams and a duty to her mother. (Source)

Life is constantly moving forward, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day. With his commanding debut, Columbus, director Kogonada captures when time seems to slow and stretch to a crawl, moments when we have no choice but to stop and take stock of what’s around us. Finding parallels through Columbus Ohio’s rich architectural history, Kogonada has crafted a meditative tale about learning to be our own person. More than just Lost in Translation for architecture nerds, the film thoughtfully mines the tension between emotion and intellect, where the two converge, despite remaining distinct and at odds. With a deft control of setting and nuance, Kogonada’s film is one that speaks volumes through its restraint, full of soul even as it explores how guilt and repression can drag us down. Stars John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson and Parker Posey are at their absolute bests, delivering some of the year’s most heartfelt performances in a film that overflows with warmth and sophistication.

At the heart of the story are two different people from opposite ends of the world. Jin (John Cho) flies in from Seoul after a medical emergency befalls his father. A literary translator, Jin finds himself at odds with his apathy and feels like an alien to Columbus’ mixture of iconic landmarks and modern inhabitants. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a local twentysomething who finds herself at a crossroads. She’s intimately drawn to architecture, but unsure whether to pursue the discipline. Jin and Casey cross paths by chance and strike up an easy relationship borne of troubled pasts and a longing for connection. Their friendship is one that stirs something urgent in one another, causing them to reexamine where they’ve come from and an uncertainty they’re afraid to face.

The gorgeous architecture that punctuates each scene can be used to understand the breadth of humanity that Kogonada’s focused his efforts on. Like his characters, these structures stand silent, sometimes lonely, towering over their surroundings in solitude despite being surrounded by so much life. As these manufactured structures look on, the plot advances through a series of intimate and candid conversations, ones in which his characters let their guard down in the most exquisite ways. As Jin and Casey take tours of Columbus’ iconic North Christian Church, Robert Stewart Bridge, the Cleo Memorial Library and more, doors become windows or pathways to each character’s souls, while homes or buildings become structures which consume and comfort. Letting form follow function, the film is told almost exclusively through static compositions, with each shot meticulously framed to evoke Jin and Casey’s budding emotions and inner struggle. Kogonada’s approach proves to be an anchor, one that allows spontaneous dialogue to breathe while exploring the space between and around his characters. There’s a grace to be found through the film’s meditative approach, amounting to a piercing honesty that truly cuts.

Columbus John Cho Haley Lu Richardson reviewThough the film’s ensemble is barely a handful of actors, these performances make the film feel huge. As Jin, John Cho finally gets to show off his immense acting chops. Thanks to Cho, Jin feels fully formed, someone who doesn’t need to be explained to us, but someone we primally understand. Cho is understated in every way, yet he rings true and clear, grappling with a myriad of internal struggles to craft a realistic journey for his character. Not to be outdone, Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey shows real depth and conviction. Struggling with her own wants and a duty to her mother, Richardson’s performance is utterly sincere, with a purity that can’t be faked. Together, these two are never outshined by their beautiful surroundings, exploring the full scope of humanity and the insecurities that wear down on us. Rounding things out, Parker Posey and Rory Culkin add context to Cho and Richardson, adding even more depth to an already dense film.

When all is said and done, this thing’s a true rarity. Never once does the film talk down to its audience, and it thrives through what can’t be said, using a keen awakening towards human nature and the world around us to shape a poignancy that is inextricable with hope and compassion. Kogonada’s latest is simply a work of art itself, with the director showing an intimate confidence in his material and laying things out for us with resounding clarity. Columbus is a passionate look at how we ascribe value to the world and people who enter our lives, as well as the unpredictable impact we have on one another.

SG