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 include Richard Linklater’s obsession with time, Ingmar Bergman’s use of mirrors, Yasujiro Ozu’s meticulous framing and Wes Anderson’s implementation of symmetry. These alone are introspective and thoughtful insights into master filmmakers’ idiosyncrasies but in conjuncture with his debut film Columbus (2017) the essays guide the viewer to understanding how an artist uses his influences to create a wholly original work.
Set and filmed just a little over a half-hour drive from the Southside of Indianapolis, Columbus is a quasi-romantic drama that brings together an ostensibly different pair of strangers. Jin (John Cho) lives and works in South Korea but rushes to Columbus where his father has fallen ill during a visit to the town; he was set to give a lecture on modernist architecture. His prolonged hospital stay displaces Jin to a semi-permanent residence in Columbus in order to care for his father and it is during this time that he meets Columbus native Casey (Haley-Lu Richardson). With an unmistakable emphasis on this small Midwestern town’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 a mere window dressing for the narrative, as it is clearly named after its shooting location. 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 characters’ 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 America mood, which also becomes a key element in both of the principle 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 Robert 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 expect to 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 so as well 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 rent from all video-on-demand providers. – 5/5 stars