MovieMonday: Columbus

If you are interested mostly in superhero movies or shoot-em-ups, “Columbus” is not the film for you.  

On the other hand, if you can abide a story that quietly examines two characters’ internal conflicts and their quiet resolution, then it is worth your attention. 

The setting is Columbus, Indiana, home to a remarkable cluster of classic modern buildings by the Saarinens, Eliel and Eero, among notable others, and also a  striking red-masted suspension bridge from 1999.  

Columbus is home to Casey, a recent high school graduate who is avoiding college because she wants to protect her mother, who has had problems but seems to be doing well.  Casey has no formal architecture training, but she studies what she sees and can explain why particular buildings speak to her.

Into the city comes a famous Korean architect scheduled to give a speech.  The architect, an older man, falls ill and is hospitalized in a coma.   His estranged son, Jin, is summoned to the father’s bedside by the architect’s colleague, an old family friend.  

Jin lives in Seoul and makes his living translating Korean literature into English.  He seems never to have understood his father’s work.  “You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing,” he acknowledges.  

He and Casey meet over cigarettes, which initially seems to be the only thing the two have in common, given their different ages and residences and personal histories.

But as they talk, they form a sort of friendship.  Casey shows Jin her favorite Columbus buildings (she has a list in her head).  In effect Casey translates architecture for Jin while he prods her to take advantage of an opportunity to continue her education. 

There are only three other characters: the colleague of Jin’s father; Casey’s mother, who has a small life and great love for her daughter, and a library colleague of Casey’s, who maybe loves her, but perhaps at the wrong moment for each of them.   

And that’s about it.  In addition to the minimalism of the plot, the film includes almost no other people or traffic or everyday events that we associate with life in a city.  It gives the impression that the city of Columbus is virtually uninhabited.  

Instead there are striking images from the built environment —  the library building, a church, the Miller house, two interior hallways that define locations and, perhaps tellingly, two brick arms that reach toward each other but don’t connect.  

In “Columbus,” we watch two blocked individuals get acquainted and then help each other take their first steps forward.  That the actors, Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho, can carry the minimalist plot is impressive.  That the film succeeds with great restraint and quiet beauty is remarkable.  For these reasons alone, it deserves an audience. 

The screenwriter and director here is the single-named Kogonada, a South Korean man previously known for criticism and short films found on Vimeo.   May “Columbus” be the first of many.

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