Marking an astonishingly assured debut by Korean-American writer and director Kogonada, “Columbus” is a quiet, contemplative, and deeply moving story about the friendship between two lonely strangers, struck up over the several days they spend walking and talking through the small city of Columbus, Indiana.
A 30-something book translator, Jin (John Cho), has come to Columbus to be with his architectural scholar father after he falls into a coma. The man lays unconscious in a hospital bed, but as Jin observes, it doesn’t mark much of a change in their relationship; it’s been a year since they’d even spoken to one another. Stuck waiting for his father to either recover or die, Jin does his best to avoid spending time there.
While out wandering, Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, “The Edge of Seventeen”), who strikes up a conversation. A recent high school graduate, Casey is delaying college, working as a librarian and staying put, despite abundant opportunity. She says that what keeps her in Columbus is the responsibility she feels to look after her mother (Michelle Forbes), who’s a recovering addict. But that often seems merely an excuse to avoid making any decisions about her future.
Despite his upbringing, Jin claims indifference to the field of architecture, but for Casey it’s a passion. The young woman demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the subject, keeping a list of her favorite buildings in the city, which has gained a reputation as a mecca of Modernist design. Both Jin and Casey are at points in their lives where they feel anchored—as immobile as the structures that dominate their conversations. As they continue to talk, the obvious intellectual connection between them grows, though the relationship remains entirely platonic. As they wander in and around the city’s marvels, they discuss what they see, and architecture becomes a means to open up about other areas of their lives.
Kogonada made a name for himself with artful video essays for the Criterion Collection, among other esteemed institutions. His minimalist approach favors meticulously composed, carefully constructed shots. This type of formalist style can sometimes feel cold and overly mannered, but here the contrast between that precision and the character’s messy human emotions lends the film poignancy, preventing it from coming across as chilly. Throughout, the filmmaker stays attuned to the way a location makes us feel when we’re in it. As its characters move through these spaces, sorting through their ideas of life, love, and loss, “Columbus” finds beauty in the process.