"Columbus" is an achievement by director Kogonada
You know when you just know something when you’re very young? How comforting the totality of that belief is, free from all doubt? I don’t know if belief brings any sort of healing power with it, and neither does Jin, played by John Cho in “Columbus.” It is the feature film debut of director Kogonada and it is one of the best films I have ever seen. It stars Cho and Haley Lu Richardson as Casey, a young woman recently graduated from high school who just might buy into the healing power of belief a little more than her new friend.
As they look at one of the beautifully framed shot buildings in Columbus, Indiana, this one a sort of bridge over a creek, Jin says the entire building is meant to be a place of mental healing. He’s quick to add he thinks that’s something architects say, rather than something he believes himself. It’s that skepticism that defines a man called to the Midwestern town as his estranged architect father lies comatose.
Casey isn’t so sure. But that lack of certainty on either end, whether the glass is a third empty or two-thirds full, makes for an intriguing relationship throughout the film’s breezy runtime. That Casey becomes less sure of herself, a talented 20 year old stuck in her hometown taking care of her recovering mother, doesn’t undermine her. Richardson shone in “Edge of Seventeen” alongside Hailee Steinfeld in 2016, and truly breaks out in what’s undeniably the lead role in “Columbus.”
That doesn’t take away from what Cho brings to the table. The film is ostensibly two hours of the duo talking, whether it be about architecture, life or how the pair ended up in Columbus. That wouldn’t work without both a compelling story and strong performances, and it gets both of them. The authenticity makes “Columbus” one of the best movies of 2017, and Kogonada a breakout director.
And that’s without delving into the incredible cinematography of Elisha Christian, who makes Columbus a must-visit city in the same way “Lady Bird” put Sacramento on the map for indie film lovers. Nearly every scene could serve as the front of a postcard for a town most viewers were likely not familiar with before their first screening. It goes beyond the buildings, though; it’s the way characters are positioned in the frames that make “Columbus” such a joy to look at. This is a visual treat in the same way “Dunkirk” is — you know, minus the massive action set pieces.
What “Columbus” has that “Dunkirk” does not is meaningful, memorable characters. Jin and Casey are brought together by chance, and through their differences. Casey is loyal to her mother, while Jin remains in Columbus with his father out of a sense of obligation. Casey fears pursuing her dreams, while Jin fears staying stagnant. These differences don’t drive them apart; rather, they bring them closer together in a way that feels natural as the city, the story’s third major character, is explored further.
Pulling all this off is a master class of directing. That it comes in Kogonada’s feature-length directorial debut is an absolute triumph. “Columbus” may be passed as award season rolls around, but don’t miss out on an opportunity to check out one of the most honest films created in 2017.