“The starting point of having an Asian as a main character was a very dehumanizing experience,” he recalls. “So many financiers would just say, ‘No, Asians have no value.’ For me, who watches international cinema, that idea seems crazy.”
There were few actors with both the chops to pull off the part and the commercial appeal to backstop the producers’ anxiety. Even Kogonada worried that Cho had never done anything like this before, something that he chides himself for now: “Of course he hadn’t! No one had ever given him the chance!”
For Cho, who has been a famous face for nearly two decades, this was the chance of a lifetime. “I closed the script and went: ‘This is amazing,’” he remembers. “And then a few minutes later I went: ‘This is impossible.’” He didn’t believe anyone would make it a reality. The actor, who said he thinks about stereotypes with every role he’s offered (and is just as put off by roles that exist as reactions to stereotypes), was excited to find a role that was entirely liberated from them.
“My defenses were down,” he said. “I didn’t do the math in my head of whether or not the details are right or wrong. Almost by definition, a character becomes humanized when an audience has to feel through them. And a character very easily becomes dehumanized when an audience doesn’t have to feel through them. That’s one of the reasons I found the waters of comedy very choppy. The ‘Harold and Kumar’ movies are very silly, but I’m very proud of them, and I was keen on doing them because I wanted people to feel through an Asian guy in a comedy.”
While Kogonada considered Cho’s visibility essential, he’s considerably more circumspect about his own. “I’ve also never identified much with my American name,” the South Korean immigrant explained, “which always feels a little strange to see or hear.”
However, Kogonada admits that his relationship to his heteronym has become almost as fraught and dynamic as his relationship with his given name. “I don’t it to be even more distracting,” he said, “And I’m suddenly feeling the burden of that. I know that if I were dealing with someone who used an alias, then I’d have my own reaction to that. I only wish it was nothing and I could just do the work, but I should have thought about that!” He laughs: “If only I’d also invented a last name for myself, this would never have been an issue!”
The nickname also had an impact on Richardson; the actress confesses that she was “a little worried that I was going to go meet him for coffee and he was going to be really artsy and pretentious and intimidating, but he’s such a gentleman, and so honest, and it’s so easy to talk to him.” Kogonada offered her another name to use on set, she said, “but I felt guilty using it. The thing is that he’s such an epic human that he deserves an epic name. I refer to him as ‘Kogonada’ even in texts. That’s who he is.”
Cho remembers huddling with the cast in an attempt to come up with their own alternative. “He was open to whatever, but I wondered if it should be ‘K.’ I was calling him ‘KG,’ and then I slipped into, ‘I think I’m just going to start calling him ‘Kevin Garnett.’ But I never had the courage to pull that off.”
Kogonada is bemused by how the heteronym has taken on a life of his own, but for him it remains pretty simple. “If I’m being honest, it was also just to protect myself from my own neuroses. I didn’t want to publish anything in public because I can be very critical of my own work, and so this created enough distance for me to put things out.”
For Kogonada, whose work clarifies the art that already exists in our lives, he just doesn’t want to get in the way. Returning to a food metaphor, he says that he hopes “Columbus” will be enjoyed like a good bowl of ramen, “The sort of ramen that you eat one day and remember the next; not some really elaborate dish, just something good that will stay with you.”
I imagine that he’s the broth in that scenario, transparent, measured, and bringing new life to a swirl of familiar ingredients. Richardson disagrees, insisting that her director would be the bowl. “Maybe I can be the microwave?” she muses. “I feel like Casey’s character in general has some warmth to her, and adds a cozy feeling to the movie, so maybe that.”
Cho, who calls his friendship with Kogonada “one of the great relationships in my life,” is partial to thinking of the film as a bone marrow stock, but — if it were ramen — he says he’d be the slice of pork.
Not anyone can be a great cook, it’s been said, but a great cook can come from anywhere. The same is true with cinema. A great filmmaker can come from anywhere, and filmmaking is only great because they often do.
“Columbus” will premiere in the NEXT section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
For more of Kogonada’s work, visit his website.