It doesn’t take long to recognize that Columbus, the directorial debut of video essayist Kogonada, belongs on any list of signature architecture movies—partly because it’s about architecture, but mostly because the design of buildings and the shape of spaces figure so prominently in its very form.
Set in Columbus, Ind., a relatively small city that is nevertheless a mecca for modernist architecture, the movie centers on two main characters: Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent high-school graduate who takes solace in the Columbus’ signature buildings while trying to figure out the next phase in her life; and Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American translator who returns to the States when his father, an architecture scholar, suddenly falls ill while on lecturing in Columbus.
Casey and Jin meet one day over a shared cigarette. Over the next few weeks, they engage in frequent, frank conversations—about architecture, yes, but also about the distance between Jin and his father; about Casey’s sense of obligation toward her recovering addict mother; and about whether or not Columbus is truly a special place one could live in or a place from which one should escape.
While Cho and Richardson are talented actors (he’s long been a favorite of mine, going back to Harold & Kumar, while she showed promise in Edge of Seventeen), many of these dialogue scenes are a bit stiff, even airless. Kogonada is going for a specific performance tone here, one of pensive contemplation, but that works best when he pushes things to formal extremes (as when we watch them talk from the other side of a window pane, unable to hear their words). In the more conventional conversation scenes, however, there is a woodenness to their interactions that makes them feel less like characters than furniture.
Spaces, both experienced and presented, can at turns trouble and soothe us.
Architecture, it soon becomes clear, is the main character anyway. The movie’s opening, which follows Jin’s father as he tours a famous house, presents a series of carefully composed frames, in which precise squares and rectangles are created within the mise en scene using bookshelves, rooflines, and couches. The other buildings featured in the film play with symmetry and asymmetry—including Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, with its slightly off-center cross—and Kogonada echoes that tension in his own compositions. Spaces, both experienced and presented, can at turns trouble and soothe us, and Columbus beautifully captures the intensity of both of those responses. In one of its loveliest moments, Casey stands below the illuminated rectangle of a modernist office space that unexpectedly rises above a mundane strip mall. As she wonders over its comforting existence “amidst all the mess,” Kogonada cuts to a close-up of her hand delicately tracing the building’s clean, straight lines. Columbus is not just a series of long shots of arresting buildings; it fluidly incorporates architectural artistry into that of the cinema.
In doing so, Columbus earns a notable place in the architecture-movie subgenre, which is populated by heavy hitters such as Lang, Murnau, Antonioni, and Tati, but also includes one-off curiosities such as the underrated Tom Tykwer thriller The International. Buildings and spaces are often a given in the movies, a necessary setting in which the story can proceed. Kogonada, like the others just mentioned, recognizes that they can also be integral to the art.