It’s strange to see a movie that wears its influences so heavily on its sleeve, and yet seems so completely devoid of cliche. Granted, the two most obvious influences of Columbus, the debut feature from director Kogonada, are in themselves influences that are very good at avoiding cliches. Because when first hearing about this movie upon its arrival at the Seattle International Film Festival (I didn’t catch up with it until last week), the names Ozu and Linklater seemed to naturally come up. Yet somehow, Columbus feels like such a singular little meditation about taking stock in what surrounds us, that it transcends whatever familiarity might be there on the surface.
Namely, the film takes stock in the architecture that surrounds the inhabitants of Columbus, Indiana, known for its striking modernist buildings set against its small town vibe. Here lives a renowned architect who has fallen ill, which thus leads his son Jin (John Cho) to Columbus, though he’s reluctant to shed any kind sympathy for his long-absent father. While just kind of mulling around town, Jin encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a post-high school townie who’s a bit of an architecture enthusiast, though is hesitant to embrace it as anything more than a hobby.
Much of the movie consists of these two walking around town, talking about life and architecture, and the architecture of life. And like Richard Linklater’s Before movies, I’d say Columbus has a great way of being conversational, but without feeling overly talky. Yes, the characters do open up to each other about their unfulfilled personal lives, and do end up bonding over certain things while seeming to have little in common. But at the same time, they’re never in a hurry. The film lets moments linger, lets off-hand comments speak multitudes, and does it in a way that feels profound without ever trying to be overtly profound.
Also, despite the breezy nature of these characters interactions, I think the film’s unfussed over tone feels surprisingly weighty is because of its visual style. Every frame of Columbus feels perfectly symmetrical and articulate like, well, and very well-conceived building. And I think I really responded to how both Cho and Richardson are able to interact as actors in a way that never quite reaches romantic. Which I think this film handles nicely, since it’s always hard to make a film about two members of the opposite sex interacting for an entire film without making them hit upon the cliched romantic beats we as an audience expect. Which Columbus never quite does, and instead lets us ponder on the words they share together, as well as the words left unsaid.