“Off center, yet balanced” are the words used by Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) to describe the First Christian Church designed by Eliel Saarinen (that’s the older Saarinen to all the architecture aficionados out there).
Columbus is directed by first time director, writer, and editor Kogonada. Quite frankly, Kogonada’s work is stunning. The duty of making a feature as a first time director is difficult enough, but to also wear the hats of writer and editor is a Herculean task. His film flourishes as it dissects parent/child relationships and the architectural playground around them.
The film is set in Columbus, Indiana, a Modernist Architecture haven. It’s also the place where Jin’s (John Cho) estranged architect father has fallen into a coma (Jin, an editor and Korean translator, hasn’t spoken to his dad in over a year). The son returning to the never could measure up to his artistic father is a well-worn trope, and is reminiscent of another 2017 release, The Meyerowitz Stories. Jin spends much of his time exploring the town and its buildings, places his dad was studying. As he moseys around he befriends Casey, a librarian whose mother is a recovering meth addict. Both characters are tied in the town, as their respective parents’ baggage deters them from leaving.
Kogonada’s success comes from his “simplistic” camera movements. Casey is an “architecture nerd,” as Jin describes her, and they visit her favorite buildings. During their explorations there are no tracking shots. In fact, there are no tracking shots in all of Columbus. All of the shots are stationary. Koganada is clearly interested in how the characters react to their environment, and sometimes tracking shots can get in the way. His stationary style is most evident in hallway scenes. Most directors would have a dolly following the actor as they walk down the hall. Koganada keeps the camera planted and watches as the character comes to him. The stationary camera provides moments of perfect framing as the characters and settings act more as architectural renderings than live-action movement. The overall effect causes us to see the characters fixed to their spaces.
This effect also causes Columbus to become a dark meditative quasi-romance, as we consider the term, “modernism with a soul.” Jin, Casey, and the architecture become a test of that philosophy. Because while Jin and Casey “hang” out, their hangouts never seem fun. Instead, they’re more like Neglected Children’s Anonymous, mixed with drinking and smoking. These sessions are often done in the shadow of some famous modernist structure. And while Jin and Casey never physically consummate their relationship, they have philosophical trysts as they scrutinize each other’s backstory.
The scene in front of Irwin Conference Center exemplifies this relationship, as Jin asks Casey to explain why she loves the building. Casey tries to regurgitate a tour guide answer, but Jin pushes her to be human. We never hear what Casey says, as the camera views the two from inside the Center. Koganada cross cuts shots of Jin listening, and Casey speaking. As Casey describes her feelings, ethereal music rises. We are only left with their emotional facial expressions, emotions often hidden by words.
Much of Columbus is composed of simplistic, yet artistic moments like that. They are moments that not only depend on the passivity of the actors, but on the passivity of their surroundings. That is, the performances mimic the balanced and linear geometry of the Bauhaus structures around them. While Modernism carries a burden of austerity, Koganada demonstrates the physiological and emotional responses of us, humans, from the designs we inhabit. And while Jin and Casey’s relationship mirrors the familiar trope of star-crossed lovers, balanced, yet off, we’re left to see them with the same hidden soul as the shinny barren buildings that surround them.
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Photo Credit: BostonHerald