The word “Columbus” has always connoted a sense of discovery and destiny, since it’s associated so closely with the fifteenth-century Italian explorer. It’s also the name of several cities in the United States, most notably Ohio’s capital. Kogonada, in his feature film debut, does not offer us a biopic about the explorer, nor an eccentric romp through Ohio’s most populous city. Instead, he takes us to the small town of Columbus, Indiana, where a young woman is stuck in a holding pattern while looking after her fragile mother, and a middle-age man arrives to visit his hospitalised father—a man he had been estranged from for many years. By chance, the two meet and strike up a conversation, finding that they are intrigued by each other’s presence. Over the course of the next few days, they speak about who they are, what they love, who they admire, and what they want to be, all the while admiring the fascinating treasures of the town’s modernist architecture.
Columbus reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson mixed with sprigs of Linklater’s Before trilogy and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Like the Jarmusch film paid tribute to the titular city in New Jersey, Kogonada’s acts as a kind of love letter to Columbus, Indiana’s architectural beauty. Kogonada’s framing is so intricately precise and spacious that you are able to understand why Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) has such a deep-seated admiration for her hometown. It’s simply a place of infinite possibilities, with every building and structure providing ample opportunities for individual expression. And like the Linklater and Coppola films, the synergy between the two leads, who spend the bulk of the film merely conversing about the things they see (and how their feelings coincide), is what gives Columbus its heart. John Cho, who plays Jin, is quite good in a tenderer role than we’re used to seeing from him, but really it’s Richardson who astounds. Every single shot of her face radiates how acutely she has loved and suffered in her short life. When she gazes at the buildings she admires, and tries to articulate her love for them, her stance and gestures speak multitudes about her intelligence and soul. And when she begins to open up—especially about her mother—the performance reaches some of the highest heights I’ve seen all year. This young lady is going to have a big career ahead of her if she keeps delivering performances like this, I’m telling you.
There are times when Kogonada’s strict sense of precision keeps you at an emotional distance, so my sincere admiration never fully crossed over to outright passion for what he achieves. In his next feature, I hope he is more uninhibited. There are still many stunning shots here, such as a scene between Cho and Parker Posey that is seen only through a mirrored reflection. And all in all, he does complete justice to Columbus’s beauty… so much so that I’d love to visit it one day and take the same tour that Casey gives Jin.