Modernism, in the UK at least, has garnered a muddied name, a casualty of the sixties concrete blocks that are so resented by traditionalists. South Korean documentarian and video essayist Kogonada may well change minds in his modestly beautiful feature debut, a romantic study of life in the so-called ‘mecca of modernism’. Influenced by the reflective strains of Japanese cinema, Columbus is softly composed and structured with impressively assured restraint.
In one of the film’s earlier scenes, two characters discuss their dinner. Kogonada revels in such moments of mundane living and there are many comparable snapshots across the film. This specific instance sees the served critique the server for under-spicing the given food. The chef’s response is not simply an eloquent turn of phrase but also the battle whisper of Kogonada’s directorial approach. She says: ‘sometimes you can taste the food better and there’s a better aftertaste’. Columbus offers little by way of visual extravagance so as to allow its nuanced performances to shine therein. It is equipollent to being present in the scene, spying on real lives from the corner of a room.
The speakers are recovering drug addict Maria (Michelle Forbes) and her wing-clipped daughter Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who share a maternally reversed relationship. When not working at the I. M. Pei’s red-brick library, Casey part times as an awestruck tour guide of her the local modernist landscape. The film takes its title from its setting in Columbus, Indiana, a small city with an so strong an architectural legacy that it has for decades now been known as ‘Athens on the Prairie’. Though most in the city simply pass by – ‘You’d be surprised how little people know or care about architecture here’ – Casey notices all. In this respect she is like Kogonada, who seizes the notable work of architects like Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi and, indeed, Pei, as characters in their own right.
Taking his cue from Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu – particularly Tokyo Story – Kogonada utilises architecture as a stage for the flow of human activity. Often, a scene will begin with an empty space and close some moments after its characters have vacated the screen. His shots are long, unobtrusive and respectfully distant; designed, as they are, to encourage the viewer to observe and to appreciate. Each captured building has a quality to offer and it doesn’t take Casey’s reeling of facts to persuade that each has a majestic quality. When John Cho arrives on the scene, he is less interested in her knowledge than he is on learning what it is about the structures that inspires in Casey emotional attachment. Her response is stolen from us, masterfully replaced by a swell of revelatory music.
Cho plays Jin, the estranged son of a leading local architect, who is drawn to Columbus when his father is hospitalised and on the brink of death. A return to the city has profound connotations for Jin, whose difficult paternal relationship is only intensified by the unrequited history he has with his father’s assistant, Eleanor (Parker Posey).
Following Searching – in the UK at least, Columbus’ stateside release was last year – the film offers yet further proof that Cho is top of his game, leading man material. An equally outstanding, perhaps even more beguiling, Richardson proves to be a perfect intellectual foil for the actor’s performance here, the pair crafting a bittersweet romantic tale of togetherness. Kogonada’s film is smart, funny and quietly heartbreaking; it would struggle to better represent life.