The Quarantine Stream: 'Columbus' is a Delicate Character Drama That Slowly Builds Into Something Special
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Columbus
Where You Can Stream It: Criterion Channel
The Pitch: John Cho stars as Jin, the estranged son of a renowned architect who finds himself stranded in Columbus, Indiana when his father suddenly falls ill during a speaking tour. While wandering the artfully designed Midwestern city, he strikes up an unusual friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), an architecture enthusiast who works at the local library and is trapped in her own situation, taking care of her recovering drug addict mom.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: I was transfixed by Columbus when I first saw the delicate feature debut by Kogonoda. There was nothing flashy or exciting about it — it was just about two lost souls who connect and bond while wandering through a pleasant environment. It’s a premise that’s been done plenty of times before and maybe more effectively by others (all of which are catnip to me), but still, Columbus struck a chord. But when the time came at the end of 2017 to choose our top films of the year, I foolishly left it off my list — a decision I would regret as Columbus continued to occupy a space in my head for months, years later. What was it about Columbus? Was it the oh so satisfying way that Kogonada framed his every shot, using the clean architecture of the town to draw the eye, in an almost mesmerizing fashion? Was it Cho and Richardson’s quiet, vulnerable performances? Was it an aesthetic that, for all intents and purposes, could be mistaken for a minimalist ASMR video? But there’s something soulful that stirs beneath the placid surface, about the rare kinship that can be found in melancholy.
If love is the act of looking, Kogonoda certainly loves Columbus, Indiana, a midwestern town that is known as the mecca for modernist architecture. But Kogonada, whose video essay beginnings explain a lot about his visually satisfying approach to filmmaking, doesn’t turn Columbus into a glorified architecture tour, neither does he use it simply as an aesthetically pleasing backdrop to Jin and Casey’s slowly budding relationship. Go ahead, roll your eyes, I’m about to say the thing: Columbus is as much a character in the movie as Jin and Casey are.
Columbus, and the beautiful modernist buildings that reside in it, is the crux of Jin and Casey’s bond and of their individual underlying issues — Jin and his strained relationship with his genius dad, Casey and her unnamed resentment against her mother for keeping her stuck in her hometown, a city with which she has a complicated love-hate relationship. Through Jin and Casey’s conversations about architecture, as Casey shows a reluctant Jin her favorite buildings in the city, Columbus’ beautiful but austere buildings morph into something warmer.
A moment of appreciation for Haley Lu Richardson’s face: an open book, it glows, it crumbles, it trembles with every emotion that flickers across her eyes. I talked before about how Kogonoda uses the act of looking to communicate a form of love to Columbus — he does it just as much with Richardson’s face, letting the camera rest on her face as it goes through the spectrum of emotion. Cho is fantastic as always too, but this is Richardson’s movie and the breakout performance that should have catapulted the young actress to awards darling fame.
Columbus can’t exactly be categorized as a romance, though it flirts with the idea. While the lack of any intense emotions or romantic resolution may be frustrating to many, the film’s soulful quietude is one that lingers longer than any big, dramatic fireworks.
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