Let me get out of the way the one thing you’ll read in every review of Columbus. This is the debut film of Kogonada, a Korean film critic who specializes in making thoughtful video essays for the web. Critics adore his work because he makes meticulously edited pieces of criticism that break down how a film works and why it matters.
Columbus has the same academic construction and attention to film theory that critics like myself adore. At one point it seemingly argues for the value of slow cinema, and its economical framing and lush cinematography would be catnip to anyone who has been to film school or, better yet, watched one of Kogonada’s videos. But Columbus has heart and intimacy far beyond its pretentions, and it’s one of the better surprises of the year.
Columbus, Indiana is home to approximately 44,000 people according to the 2010 census. This small, rural town is known for its incredible architecture. You enter the city through welcoming red arches that seem to stretch away from you as you pass under them. The town’s city hall has two brick fronts that seem to levitate above the ground. And the local bank emits a soothing green glow that serves as a night light to the sky.
Ask Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a high school student in town, and she’ll rattle off some trivia she’s picked up from the local tour group. But she opens up when she meets Jin (John Cho). Jin’s father is a noted professor in town, and he’s on his deathbed. Jin reluctantly comes in from work in Asia to pay what little respects he has left for his estranged father, and the two form an unlikely bond.
There’s a beautiful scene shortly after they meet where Jin gets Casey to break out of tour guide mode to explain why she most loves one building in town. Just as she’s about to speak, the camera cuts to inside the building and looks out at her through its massive windows. We don’t hear her response, but we can sense her change of heart, how talking about this building gives her a sense of peace.
This is the beauty of Columbus. Rather than a trite response, it trims some of the dialogue and speaks through its contemplative and perfectly economical cinematography. To see these two strangers just be there for the other is so comforting and profound.
Many of these shots speak to Jin and Casey’s loneliness, internal struggles and desire to get away from this town. In one moment Jin opens a closet door and sees his father’s figure outlined by an outfit. The long take that lingers on them both and captures Jin’s unhinged posture as he clutches a whiskey glass speaks volumes. Later on, Casey drives to an empty parking lot, blares her car’s music and dances and flails in its headlights. Everything in this town and this film has a form and precise purpose, and this is one instance of free spirited release.
Cho has a crisp delivery in his speech, nonchalance as he looks at every gorgeous building in town and detached distance in each conversation that make you wonder how much of himself he’s suppressing beneath the surface. Richardson is meek, but bright and inviting. She has the power to escape deep in thought and transport you to her other world, only to return to the moment with a warm smile. These are both deeply genuine and emotional performances.
Columbus feels so engrossing, so lovingly constructed in every frame. Like the town that shares the film’s name, if you’re just passing through, it has beautiful, surface level charms. But the more time you spend with it, you appreciate how deep and special it is.