John Cho won’t let me off the phone until he gets something off his chest.
Contemplative, sincere, and self-effacing throughout our conversation, the actor’s voice assumes a sudden urgency as he searches for the right way to express something clearly very important to him. Best known for his roles in cultural touchstones like the “Harold and Kumar” saga and the recent hat trick of “Star Trek” movies, Cho has spent the last 24 hours thinking about a tiny independent film he starred in last summer and how best to describe its unique creator to the press. “This isn’t a problem I’ve ever had before,” he says with a clumsy note of wonder in his voice.
“The word ‘artist’ gets battered around a lot in this industry, and it can sometimes be derogatory; it can be code for ‘not commerce,’” he said. “And I want you to know that when I call him an ‘artist,’ I mean that in a very pure way. He is an artist in the sense that he’s a seeker, he’s a person asks questions, he’s a person who has ideas and feels them deeply.”
This director is also a person who, prior to his collaboration with Cho, never spent a day on set. And yet, even before his debut feature is projected at Sundance on Sunday night, he is already one of the festival’s most popular filmmakers. Indeed, there’s a good chance you might be one of the millions of people familiar with his work.
His name is Kogonada, and he edits video essays.
However, his name isn’t really Kogonada — the moniker is a clever heteronymous tribute to Yasujirō Ozu’s screenwriting partner, Kōgo Noda — and his video essays so routinely transcend the form that describing them as such is like dismissing Banksy’s work as graffiti. Kogonada prefers to think of his work as sushi.”With sushi, every cut matters,” he’s said. “And so do the ingredients. Those two ongoing choices are the difference. What you select, and how you cut it. I think the same applies to the pieces I’m trying to make.”
Some of his pieces are indexical. Others are more abstract; all are transcendent. They don’t force a thesis upon their viewers, or smugly explain a movie’s mechanics. They’re less concerned with what they’re showing than they are with ways of seeing. Already among the most accomplished visual essayists, Kogonada is about to become the first of their ranks to parlay his online popularity into a feature film. After years of making art from behind a computer, Kogonada is stepping behind a camera; after years of making sushi, Kogonada is becoming a fisherman.
More than just a personal triumph and the fulfillment of a dream, this graduation serves as epochal proof that Sundance is still doing its job. Kogonada’s story is also a lucid example of how the internet has closed the gap between aspiration and success.
It began, as such stories often do, with an unlikely benefactor. After receiving high-profile commissions from the likes of the British Film Institute and the Criterion Collection, Kogonada was still unsure of how to make the leap into feature filmmaking. Naturally, he assumed that any opportunities would come from people in the art-house community as opposed to, say, the co-director of “American Pie.” While working on an adaptation of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son,” Chris Weitz was struck by Kogonada’s video essay on the Japanese auteur, and decided to reach out to the editor.