Columbus: The Contradictions of Companionship

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

** ½ (out of 4)

Kogonada’s Columbus is the latest movie (see anything by Sofia Coppola or Michelangelo Antonioni for older examples) to tackle the subject of ennui. This time around, the setting is Columbus, Indiana – an oft-neglected hub of modern architecture – and the two unmoored protagonists are played by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. Cho’s character, Jin, is an overworked Korean-American who has to look after his dying father; Richardson’s character, Casey, is a bookworm who put off college to take care of her mom, a recovering meth addict. On the whole, both of them feel so estranged from the world that they habitually wear expressions laced with a sort of weary, resigned melancholy. But instead of getting bogged down in misery, Jin and Casey eventually find themselves doing what Bob and Charlotte did in Coppola’s Lost in Translation: bonding over their shared emotional frustrations.

Many flawed movies get that way because they’re superficial or repetitive. What’s peculiar about Columbus is that its problem is neither of those: Kogonada clearly has a brain, and his depiction of jaded resignation appreciably differs from Antonioni’s futile desperation and Lost’s ineffable despair. Instead, the main issue with Columbus stems from its inconsistent treatment of its material. If you only focused on its acting, plot, and score, Columbus is, as mentioned, a Lost-esque tale about two people discovering companionship: a quietly empowering story about the connections we make when we least expect it. Yet if you instead went by Columbus’ cinematography – which regularly features stills of elegant yet icy buildings that dwarf the human characters – you’d think you were watching a L’avventura-esque tale about the emptiness of modern society. In a sense, the movie seesaws between diverging views of life: existence is either a trove of hidden possibilities or a sleek-but-meaningless game of appearances. And unfortunately, Kogonada never finds a way to synthesize these two ideas.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

From here, you also have to consider the inconsistent responses Columbus gives to a question it conspicuously poses: what’s the essence (or value) of architecture? On the one hand, Kogonada sometimes suggests that architecture supplies a kind of lasting stability. After all, like I said, the film abounds in imposing still images of Columbus’ many architectural landmarks; in one scene, moreover, Kogonada even has Casey describe how she took to one particular building while struggling to cope with her mom’s addiction. In one way or another, all of these moments imply that architecture stands for immutability and certainty in a world that doesn’t.

In other places, however, Columbus ends up endorsing the very opposite of this idea. Take the scene where Jin asks Casey to explain why she likes a certain building – and Kogonada, as if to avoid any pretense of definitude, noticeably omits her response. Or take the way the movie features two contrasting shots of the same cable bridge: in the first shot, we’re made to understand that the bridge symbolizes cold elegance, but in the second one, background music instead turns it into a symbol of harmonious uplift. In such moments, Columbus indicates that architecture, far from supplying fixity or permanence, is in fact amorphous and inconstant – namely, that it has meaning only insofar as it absorbs or reflects varying personal and emotional dispositions. On the subject of architecture, Kogonada once again seems oblivious to the various contradictions he introduces.

In the end, the one thing that somewhat redeems Columbus is Richardson’s acting. Cho, to be sure, is also quite good; he sometimes works too hard to maintain a grimace, but he reaches depths that’ll surprise anyone who only knows him through Star Trek. Yet RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico was onto something when he singled out Richardson as a “revelation.” She effortlessly establishes and develops a character whose gentle smile belies disappointment at the way life continually spurns her dreams – a character, in other words, who tries to pretend she’s left her past troubles behind, even as she knows on some level that she really hasn’t. I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that Richardson leaves you completely blown away. If only you could say the same about Kogonada’s directing.

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

***

Columbus (2017)

Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson

Running Time: 104 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

Produced by: Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Aaron Boyd, Giulia Caruso, Ki Jin Kim, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz

Written and Directed by: Kogonada