“We got into this conversation,” Kogonada remembers, calling me from the Nashville house that he shares with his wife and their two sons. “And it turns out he’s a huge cinephile. His grandfather was Ingmar Bergman’s agent!” (Fact check: True). It wasn’t long before Kogonada wrote a script, Weitz liked it, and they were off to the races. “Chris was one of the first producers on board, and he was a real protector throughout.”
Thanks to that protection, “Columbus” feels like an extension of Kogonada’s previous work; fans will likely recognize his unique way of synthesizing his influences into something new. “There are definitely people who are like collectors, with encyclopedic minds, but my approach has always been more existential,” he said. “I’m interested in pursuing some question that feels personal to me.”
Set entirely in the overcast city of Columbus, Indiana, a small town that’s renowned as an unexpected mecca of modernist architecture, “Columbus” unfolds like a remake of “Garden State” as directed by Yasujirō Ozu (though less twee than the former and more direct than the latter).
The gentle plot begins with the collapse of a famous architect, whose partner (Parker Posey) summons the man’s estranged son to his bedside. Jin (Cho) isn’t in town long before he encounters Casey (“Edge of Seventeen” star Haley Lu Richardson), a smart and sensitive 19-year-old architecture nerd who’s deferred her dreams to stay with her addict mother. The local and the visitor spend much of their time together, strolling through parks and seeing the city’s attractions through the perspectives they provide one another. Casey finds solace staring at the fluorescent rectangle that sits atop the Irwin Union Bank, while Jin sees James Stewart Polshek’s Columbus Regional Hospital as a monument to the relationship he never had with his father (“You grow up around something and it feels like nothing,” he observes).
In some respects, it’s familiar Sundance fare (an emotionally stunted man is summoned to his small hometown when his father takes ill). In others, it’s light years removed from the casual aesthetics of indie film. “Columbus” began because Kogonada was fascinated by modernism and frustrated by its Western bias. And from that perspective, the city of Columbus, Ind. represented a fascinating dichotomy. (It’s also, Kogonada scornfully observes, where Mike Pence was born and raised.)
A midwestern town to its core, Columbus is graced with architecture by neofuturist Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei protege James Stewart Polshek. The results are structures that are both beautiful and invisible: They’re massive pieces of art, but people regularly pass by or enter them without noticing. And if you look deeply at them, they morph into marvels of negative space. That reveals how nothingness blots out so much of what there is to experience in our world, a distinctly non-Western concept.
To some extent, the director wears his influences on his sleeve. Minimal camera movement and preponderance of passageways are broad nods to Ozu; the characters’ philosophical musings feel indebted to Linklater. On the other hand, by bending those influences towards Kogonada’s own fascinations, “Columbus” circumvents pastiche and becomes as unique as the man who made it.
Kogonada worked to ensure his cast shared his vision; Richardson said he helped her prepare by giving her a list of movies to see. “Watching ‘Tokyo Story’ definitely helped me understand what kind of vision he had, but ‘Columbus’ isn’t trying to be that, or even a lot like that,” she said. “It just speaks the same language. Now, instead of going to see ‘Batman Whatever,’ I’m watching the movies Kogonada recommended.”
As a director, however, Kogonada didn’t seem to be cribbing from his heroes. According to Cho, Kogonada’s digital video essays were a strength.
“He seems very mature as a director, and maybe that comes from the confidence of editing his own stuff,” Cho said. “A director is usually trying to grab as he or she can during the course of the day, so that they’ll have as many options as possible later on, so it ends up being a little scattered. He knew what he was going to use, how it was going to cut together. He was a man with a plan.”
Kogonada’s first feature is also unique as an English-language drama that boasts an Asian male as its lead. Kogonada shrugs off the idea that the part is autobiographical, but he says the race of Jin’s character was never up for debate. Jin’s Asian-ness and his otherness are inextricable from the character and why he was written. And given the difficulty that Kogonada had in selling people on the character, it only affirmed the need for Jin to exist.