Columbus: A State of Mind, by Tyler Smith
While watching Kogonada’s Columbus, one can be forgiven for quickly thinking of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Both films feature two lonely protagonists thrown together in a strange city by chance, where they proceed to have a number of subdued, introspective conversations, all while being impeccably shot in a series of eclectic locations. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise sneaks in from time to time, as well. But to be reminded of previous films isn’t necessarily a negative, especially when the formula works so well, and the various components of the latter film are so specifically human. Columbus may not be the most original film, but, between its unique characters, beautiful cinematography, and elegiac tone, it is engrossing nonetheless.
The film begins with an old man in Columbus, Indiana. The man is an architecture professor, visiting the city to lecture on its various landmarks. Suddenly, he collapses and falls into a coma, requiring that his estranged son Jin (John Cho) travel from South Korea to oversee what will likely be his father’s final days. As Jin mournfully contemplates his father’s death, he encounters a young college student named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), struggling with her own issues, including a former drug addict mother and the looming question of what the future may hold. Jin and Casey clearly see each other as kindred spirits, alone and unsatisfied with the hand they’ve been dealt. And so they open up and let each other in, finding comfort in companionship.
I should lead off by saying that I’m a sucker for this type of film. I’ve long been fascinated by those seasons in our lives when we might come into contact with people that are superficially different, but spiritually symbiotic. Combine that with a tone of melancholy stillness, and I’m on board. But there have been plenty of cookie cutter indie films that have attempted this and failed to distinguish themselves, possibly due to an inauthenticity in the storytelling or understanding of character. With Columbus, writer/director Kogonada really attempts to give his characters their due, allowing them to speak for themselves or, perhaps more notably, say nothing.
In order for this to work, it is important that the director trust his actors to interpret the material as honestly as possible, and the two leads both approach this story with a blend of vulnerability and wariness that should be recognizable to anybody that has ever experienced a particularly lonely strain of heartbreak. John Cho, an actor known primarily for comedy and action films, sinks his teeth into the role of Jin, playing him with a noticeable resentment towards his father, both the man himself and the culture that he represents. Jin is sad for his father’s illness, but seems to feel it out of societal obligation, citing the Korean customs that require him to weep for a man he has virtually no relationship with. Jin’s solitude appears to be self-inflicted, stemming from years of anger, eventually congealing into a world-weariness that has left him yearning for real human connection, but suspicious when he actually finds it. It is a solid performance by Cho, made all the more commendable for its refusal to play into the more obvious and flashy elements of grief and cynicism.
Haley Lu Richardson probably has the more difficult job, playing a character that is more open about her feelings. What makes this more difficult isn’t the requirement that Richardson must emote more, but in finding the point at which to hold back. Casey may be a more emotional character, but she has no more faith in other people than Jin does. She allows herself to trust, but only to a point. Richardson wisely plays this as almost perpetual frustration, as she is still learning where to draw the line, and often feeling like she has given away too much of herself, or not enough. It is a mature, complex performance that announces Richardson as an actress to pay close attention to in the near future.
As Jin and Casey walk around the inspiring architectural structures of Columbus, talking about whatever strikes them, they are exquisitely-framed, often at a distance, creating an almost sterile feeling to their relationship. These are careful people, proceeding with this new friendship with extreme caution. Theirs is not a relationship to be shot handheld; that would suggest that their lives are somehow chaotic, and these two characters have spent a good portion of their lives systematically reducing – if not outright removing – anything even remotely resembling chaos. Cinematographer Elisha Christian is also a relative newcomer, with very few feature length credits to his name, but an undeniable confidence, composing shots that are symmetrical and cold, but somehow sensitive to the emotional state of the characters. These images, with the ethereal score by Hammock, slowly pull us deeper into this world, which is in no way fantastical, yet still feels a bit unreal.
Of course, while each of the individual contributors can be singled out for praise, Columbus is certainly a singular work of vision. From beginning to end, Kogonada understands the story he is telling, and the best way in which to tell it. The inner lives of his characters affect every element of the film, until it is finally a deeply internal experience, both for the characters and the audience. It is a rare joy to encounter an artist so comfortably in command of his art.
As I think about Columbus, I remember the old adage “It’s not just a place, it’s a state of mind.” Yes, this idea can be overused – not unlike whenever somebody describes a setting as another character in a movie – but I think it actually applies here. Both Jin and Casey will eventually be moving on with their lives, but Columbus, Indiana will always have a special significance for them. It will linger in their memories as a place of convergence, where they were allowed a moment of relief from their bitterness and carefully-crafted distance. It will be the place where they were each able to recognize a fellow traveller who could share in their loneliness. As they remember the beautiful buildings and monuments, they’ll marvel not just at what they were looking at, but who was looking with them.