How many of us take the time to stop and really look around us at all the beauty there is to be found in this world? That seems to be a focal point of Columbus, an indie film that marks the directorial debut of Korean-American director Kogonada, who also wrote the film’s script. Filmed on location throughout Columbus, Indiana, which is known as a “Midwestern Mecca of Modernism” for architecture enthusiasts the world over, Columbus tells the story of an unlikely pairing to an outsider’s untrained eyes.
John Cho (of Harold & Kumar and Star Trek reboot fame) plays Jin, a middle-aged man forced to spend time in Columbus because his estranged father (a well-noted architecture professor and historian) has collapsed into a coma there. While in the sleepy, little town, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent high school graduate who spends her days working at the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and her evenings caring for her mother (a recovering meth addict). As a budding architecture nerd, Casey first takes an interest in Jin because of his famous father, and then, as an intellectual and amiable companion, as the two discuss the complexities of architecture, parents, societal expectations and life and death in general. Jin feels trapped in Columbus because he has to wait for his father to either die or recover, while Casey is trapped in Columbus because she’s been putting her life on hold because she’s wary of leaving her mother on her own. Age is irrelevant, as we are all struggling peers trying to make sense of this life. How many of us also feel trapped out there, either by moral convictions, family obligations or a sense of general hopelessness as we watch current national and world events unfold?
Having grown up listening to his father lecture about the importance of art and architecture, Jin seemingly doesn’t have much interest in the subject on the surface. He has spent a lifetime rejecting its relevance because as he tells Casey, “You grow up around something and it feels like nothing.” She then takes it upon herself to show him how wrong that viewpoint is by gradually showing him her world, pointing out her favorite buildings all around town that have had an impact upon her and have made “her list” of important architectural gems.
On her list are several noteworthy works by famous architects such as I.M. Pei, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern and Cesar Pelli. As a testament to the healing power of art, Casey turned to the steady support provided by admiring architecture to see her through the unstableness of her mother’s addictions. As she tells Jin in a pivotal scene, “In the middle of all the mess, suddenly the place I had lived my whole life felt different, like I’d been transported somewhere else.”
The viewer is also seemingly transported to another place while watching this film, as he or she observes fantastically beautiful and bizarre sculptures, towers, all-glass banks and Modernist churches with aesthetically-pleasing shots of the characters in this spectacular setting as seen through doorways, hallways, hidden paths and even mirrors. It’s as if every scene were lovingly and painstakingly shot with an architect’s keen eye for detail. According to director Kogonada, “During pre-production, we visited all the locations and took photographs, so we had an idea of how we were going to approach each scene and space. The buildings were never treated as just background. They were always integral to the moment we were trying to capture.”
That feeling really resonated with me throughout the film. I was privileged to be able to attend a special Columbus screening and Q&A with director Kogonada and star John Cho in Indianapolis. A lifelong Hoosier, I’ve spent time in Columbus, Indiana, although it was usually passing through it to reach somewhere else. I didn’t realize that it has over 60 Modernist buildings or that tourists come from all over the world just to take architectural tours. However, thanks to this film, you better believe that I’ll be staying and looking around the next time I pay the town a visit. As I watched Columbus, I felt more and more like Casey’s character, suddenly absorbing all this beauty virtually in my backyard that I’d never taken the time to notice and appreciate before. I want to spend a weekend admiring the charming gardens at the Inn at Irwin Gardens. I want to marvel on a museum tour of the Miller House. And I especially want to see that breathtaking red brick building with the two points that should but don’t touch (Columbus’ City Hall) and the stunning Second Street Bridge that leads into the town.
Columbus also stars Parker Posey as Jin’s father’s colleague and Rory Culkin as Casey’s coworker/potential love interest at the library. The dialog isn’t always the best (at times, it feels a bit stilted), but it’s the beauty of seeing the city come to life that makes it a transcendental work of art. It has a personalized style to it that makes it easily relatable. It’s also interesting to see Cho take a chance at a more intellectual role than some of the others listed on his resume, as it’s one that suited him quite well. I’d love to see him take further risks like this in his career.
But perhaps the biggest question facing Kogonada is “Why Columbus?” Why not Los Angeles or New York or Chicago as a backdrop for this story? To which he had a great answer: There was once a movement that architecture could really change the world … Columbus still feels like a town full of that possibility and hope tinged with melancholy because the reality is that art can’t change everyone. I loved that both director and star said they wanted Hoosiers to embrace this film as their own. It’s not every day that a small town in Indiana has a limelight shown upon it for the rest of the world to revere, but it’s definitely a feeling that one could get used to, as I eagerly spotted an acquaintance of mine as an extra in one of the film’s many picturesque scenes. Columbus may not have the highest gross at the box office this year, but that doesn’t matter, as it was clearly a labor of love for all involved.
Want to see Columbus and judge for yourself? Click on the images below to buy your tickets now, and be sure to come back and tell us what you thought!
Columbus has a running time of 1 hour 40 minutes and is not rated.