With its calm, careful attention to architectural detail and a fascination with the spaces between and around its characters, “Columbus” is a lovely feature debut from the writer-director who goes by the name Kogonada, starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in two of the year’s subtlest and truest performances.
The film’s title refers to the Indiana city (population just under 47,000, and the birthplace of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence) boasting a considerable array of buildings, ranging from a bank branch to a house of worship, designed by a gallery of major architects including I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese and many others. Kogonada luxuriates in the surroundings created by these masters of the built environment. But “Columbus” transcends the realm of a conventional architectural tour. In other words, the people on screen matter, too.
Cho plays Jin, the translator son of a renowned architect. In the opening scene, in which the key moment remains just off-camera, the architect collapses and soon falls into a coma. His son arrives from Seoul with an uncertain timeline and a conflicted, privately anguished sense of what to wish for regarding his estranged father’s recovery.
Meantime we’re introduced to Casey (Richardson), a recent high school graduate and Columbus resident who works in a local library. (Rory Culkin plays her passive-aggressively smitten coworker.) Short for Cassandra, Casey has foregone any collegiate or travel plans in her role as unofficial caretaker for her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes).
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Casey’s a champion and an untrained but highly perceptive expert regarding the local architecture. When she meets Jin, the groundwork is laid in a shrewdly sustained walk-and-talk exchange with one character on one side of a fence, and the other on the other. “Columbus” charts these intersecting lines, also known as characters, in a series of conversations, precise but flowing, in the vein of filmmaker Richard Linklater.
As Jin puzzles through his relationship with his father; Casey, similarly, must sort out her obligation to her mother. Parker Posey slips artfully into the minimalist tone of the film, as the ailing architect’s longtime associate Jin is skeptical, even disdainful, of his father’s lifelong devotion to his work.
The movie is beautiful without wasting its time on cliched beauty.
Above all, Cho and Richardson are wonderful. Kogonada acknowledges their characters’ mutual attraction, as well as their considerable age difference, while steering the somewhat elliptical narrative away from predictable story beats.
Here and there, the filmmaker cuts out the natural sound in a dialogue scene, letting the audience fill in the blanks. There are moments in “Columbus” when Kogonada’s transitional shots of various locations risk reiteration. But few contemporary American films operate on this level of aesthetic precision.
Rated: Not rated. Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey. Director: Kogonada. Running time: 100 minutes. Theater: Flicks.