By Bradley Lane
South Korean writer-director Kogonada made a career for himself by producing video essays about international cinema’s greatest auteurs. His website is packed with videos discussing specific aspects of directors’ signature styles. Some of the topics discussed include Linklater’s obsession with time, Bergman’s use of mirrors, Ozu’s meticulous framing and Wes Anderson’s implementation of symmetry. These alone are introspective and thoughtful insights into master filmmakers’ idiosyncrasies but in conjunction with his debut film, 2017’s Columbus, they work like a guide to understanding how an artist uses his influences to create a wholly original work.
Set and filmed in Columbus, Ind., just a little over a half-hour drive from the Southside of Indianapolis, the story is a quasi-romantic drama that brings together an ostensibly very different pair of strangers. Jin (John Cho) lives and works in South Korea but rushes to Columbus where his father has fallen ill while in town to give a lecture on modernist architecture. His prolonged hospital stay displaces Jin to a semi-permanent residence in Columbus to care for his father, and it is in this time he meets town native Casey (Haley-Lu Richardson). With an unmistakable emphasis on Columbus’s striking architectural achievements at the center of their story Jin and Casey begin to influence one another in ways that will shape their entire lives.
The setting of the film does not exist as mere window dressing for the narrative; it is named after its shooting location, after all. In fact, Kogonada uses the unique setting to reinforce the themes of the film and in the process creates a film that could have only ever existed in the one place in the world that it does. Through the character’s exploration of modernist architecture in the buildings and structures of Columbus, the film begins to incorporate the design philosophy associated with modernism into the narrative. This would be impressive alone, but the director takes it one step further by juxtaposing Columbus’ architectural significance with the small town feel of rural Indiana, which also becomes a key element in both principal characters’ growth.
Watching Columbus after familiarizing yourself with Kogonada’s previous work feels like putting together an intricate puzzle of cinematic influences. The dialogue flows naturally like Linklater but the shots are formal and hyper-composed like Bresson. Some shots are symmetrical but divorced from the twee-indie aesthetics of Wes Anderson, they take on a meaning more akin to Ozu or Antonioni’s explorations of a world changing faster than we can acclimate. It’s like a magic trick, by showing us his hand before the film, we should see his work as derivative or outdated, but that only makes it more impressive when he delivers a movie that feels innovative, fresh and perfect for our time.
Coming right out of the gate with a fully formed idiosyncratic directorial style has only happened a few times in film history and nearly all of them have become regarded as masters of the medium. Kogonada is set to do that with a criminally underrated film that uses a part of Indiana history to tell a heartfelt, meaningful and refreshing human story. Columbus is available to stream on Paramount Plus, Showtime, and Kanopy. – 5/5 stars