“Meth and modernism.” This could well be the local motto of Columbus, Indiana. It’s a comment made by lifelong resident Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), inflected with the candid and caustic humour of an unspoken regret. Both of these elements linger in the town, seen and unseen, haunting the futures of the city and those who inhabit it. South of Indianapolis, Columbus is a small town, with a population recently charted as around 45,000. It is most famous for its civic design, modernist buildings designed by people such as Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier. Kogonada, a noted video essayist now turning to feature filmmaking, uses this slate of architectural grandeur to give his film a formalist aesthetic. As such, his film is concerned less with plot and more with conversational and psychological exploration, a work that is achingly unique to its location..
Inherently concerned with the way a place shapes its residents films named after the towns in which they are set could form a focus group for study – Paterson (2016), Palo Alto (2013), Elizabethtown (2005), even Nashville (1975). Columbus is the most recent addition to this group, a portrait of a young woman struggling to move on from the remote Columbus and of a man drawn back to the town after successfully establishing a life in Seoul. Both have opportunities elsewhere but are trapped by family, as though by force of obligation and expectation rather than by love. Casey has opportunities to leave but feels compelled to care for her mother, a former meth addict, while Jin (John Cho) is bitter that he must return to care for a sick father. Desire, for both of them, conflicts with responsibility. Affection as displayed in Columbus is twofold: that which the director has for his characters, the specifically observed portraits of people confronting profound difficulties in their lives, as well as the intensity of appreciation for the town’s iconic architecture.
Written and (of course) edited by Kogonada, Columbus doles out information in a restrained manner, building rich characters without falling back on exposition, leaving spaces for viewers to fill with their own thoughts. This is part of the pleasure of this film, of finding a connection to it as elements of story and character are shrouded in the common pain of withholding the truth. Parker Posey’s character remains unnamed, as does Rory Culkin’s, and yet both impact on the course of events without introduction. The fact that they remain key to the film is testament to their performances and to the script.
The heart of the film remains that for leads Casey and Jin, the physical space, and spiritual presence, of the buildings and structures in Columbus, help them come to understand each other and their own paths. Their meandering conversations about the town’s architecture that address its visual presence and tease out metaphoric resonances, serve as displaced recollections of ghostly desires unfulfilled, softly echoing the lost promise of modernism in Columbus itself.
Our first glimpse of Casey has her dwarfed by the brick structure of the First Christian Church, as she whispers to herself that the building’s design is asymmetrical yet still balanced and attractive, establishing her intellectual interest in architectural design. Much of the camera framing that follows is less strictly symmetrical than purposefully balanced, reflecting a fascination with composition that follows on from Kogonada’s earlier video essays on symmetrical formations. The film is like a modernist artwork itself; both intimate and distant, warm and austere. There is a stunning shot fairly early in the film of the interior of a library, an aisle the centre point, and each division of stacks complements the other; on the right, the book spines face towards the camera, and on the left, the spines face away. Later, a car pulls up in front of hospital doors, and as Jin enters through on door to the right, a group of people leave via the left. There’s a balanced composition of light and dark across the screen, which recurs in later shots: a glass building whose interior chairs fill half the screen, an intimate conversation that occurs entirely as a reflection, an illuminating mirror placed in an imposing mahogany room.
In this respect, Elisha Christian’s cinematography is impressive, visually and thematically considered.A hint of his eye for composition can be seen in Michael Mohan’s short film Pink Grapefruit, and it is clear that he and Kogonada are working symbiotically. He captures grandiose shots of modernist buildings, structures, against the urban landscape but also foregrounded against the sky, as blocks of conceptual architecture that impressively recalled some of the camera set ups of Godard’s Le Mépris (1963). Kogonada also incorporates a Godardian obsession with primary colours, with the production design by Diana Rice often composed with a distinctive triplet of yellow, red, and blue. This first becomes noteworthy when Casey walks into an office to deliver some job applications. She wears blue shorts, a yellow-tinted cream shirt, and carries a red folder. These colours return, again in Casey’s outfit and complementary office post-its, as shelving in the library, in the factory where Casey’s mother works – not so much subtle yet nonetheless strikingly beautiful in terms of composition. Is Kogonada attempting to be political with this use of colour, as Godard was in his films, or merely experimenting with form? Does each colour have a symbolic association? The reds, yellows, and blues, always pop out from the screen, but their presence never seems incongruous. Whatever their meaning, the assured and sophisticated nature of Kogonada’s practice is beautiful and absorbing.
In the press notes for Columbus, Kogonada quotes a line from Yasujiro Ozu’s 1936 film Only Son: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Kogonada’s debt to Ozu, whose films he reveres (his pseudonym is a reference to an Ozu screenwriter), lingers clearly in composition and theme. Through Jin and his father, through Casey and her mother, Kogonada emphasises the weight of familial bonds which hold the children back from their potential.
As Casey comes to realise her mother’s lies, atmospheric sounds like the tinkling of wind chimes and the song of crickets late at night embody her loneliness and isolation, the lingering silence and stillness of Columbus. This stillness compounds the feeling of parental betrayal, suggesting just how easy it is for some children to feel lost as they negotiate familial relationships. While the stillness is the very thing that draws Casey to Columbus, that compels her to take in the bold serenity of its architecture, the ever present stasis is also the reason she needs to escape. With the film’s serene final shot, Kogonada farewells Columbus across the perfectly symmetrical Robert Stewart Bridge, but I just want to go back.