Shot in reflection through doorways, under overpasses and through transparent glass windows, cinematographer Elisha Christian refuses to let the backgrounds be ignored in director Kogonada’s feature-length debut Columbus, about a developing relationship between a 30-ish man and a 19-year-old woman whom he recognizes as his equal when discussing architecture.
After quitting grad school, Jin (played by John Cho from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) now works translating books into Korean, and is estranged from his father, who was scheduled to give a lecture on the abundant buildings in Columbus, Indiana, known as the mecca of Midwestern architecture. After an accident leaves his father in a coma, Jin arrives to be by his father’s side. Though it’s not made clear, the gulf between them might be due to the direction he has taken.
To Jin, buildings have become distractions to personal crisis.
Soon we meet Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson (Split), who had graduated high school but seems to have – permanently – put college aside to stay put in her hometown to take care of her mother, a recovering meth addict. To Casey, architecture is her connection to a much larger world, outside Columbus.
Columbus is part Lost in Translation, but it’s also part every “coming of age” after-party where dreams and desires can’t clear the hurdle. It’s not a movie about buildings, but about building something beyond imposed limits.
A building is not a monument. Banks, hospitals, schools, libraries… each form serves a function.
A building stays put, well past the expiration date of the architect that designed it and the builders that constructed it.
Both Jin and Casey are obsessed with who erected these structures, not intellectually because of facts but because these buildings move them from point A to point B in life! It doesn’t matter if a building is stuck in the confines of a strip mall or self-contained on a hillside, the form must meet its function. At one stage, Casey comments, “I use my phone to make calls, not to search,” underlining how modernists are quick to misinterpret function.
Probably my most favorite scene in the entire picture has Casey and Jin conversing outside of a glass structure, being shot from within, and as the conversation continues, we the audience cannot hear what is being said. A building has an outside and an inside, and a respect for privacy. But we are able to follow her points due to her expression through the glass, something the world of texting cannot provide.
And architecture isn’t all that’s connecting these two.
“In Korea, when a parent dies, I’d be expected to be there, adequately grieving – so it’s better he dies here.” The alternative is, Jin’s father would become a ghost.
Casey’s mom, played by the always-versatile Michelle Forbes (Star Trek: The Next Generation) works at menial jobs in a factory and doing evening maintenance. She’s already ghost-like, drifting in and out of Casey’s sight.
Here’s a film about recapturing “lost” relationships. Columbus is about the human connection in a world that’s been “lost” to each of them. The question, “Have we lost interest in everyday life?” seems to permeate both of their psyches as characters in touch with their surroundings while everybody else appears out of sync.
Haley Lu Richardson’s real life father is a golf course architect, which may prove some of the inspiration for her stares of candor. Cho is playing a translator, which provides the connection for their confabulated exchange. Casey works at the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, a place where searches do not rely on cell phones! She has a difficult time accepting the argument of her co-worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin) that attention bias isn’t at the heart of poor reading habits, rather it’s an “interest deficit”! Largely because she can’t fathom not being interested herself!
Like all language, architecture must be in general use to remain effective; it will communicate subtle nuances to those who see it, but only if and when it is noticed. The same can be said of the movie Columbus.