Columbus is Kogonada’s first feature film, but it comes after a long career in film essays, many of which have focused on the spaces and architecture employed by other directors, including Yasujiro Ozu, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Bresson. That essayistic attention to film space filters over into Columbus as well, which is essentially a film essay about the modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana, with a loose narrative grafted over the top. In essence, it’s a drama of two characters – Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson, a young woman who lives in the town and has dreams of leaving to become an architect, and Jin, played by John Cho, who arrives from Korea after his father, a renowned architect, has a stroke on the verge of presenting a keynote address at a local architecture symposium. As Casey and Jin form a connection and spend a couple of days wandering around Columbus, Kogonada paints a vibrant portrait of this extraordinary city, which has more modernist structures per capita than any other in the United States. While the city comes first and foremost, the fact that Jin is effectively waiting for his father to die suffuses every scene with a sense of fragility and impermanence, along with a particularly Japanese sense of melancholy and mono no aware that recalls Kogonada’s film essay “Way of Ozu,” and the importance of Ozu across his body of work. In fact, the film as a whole often plays as an experiment in considering how Ozu’s pillow shots might look when transplanted to the Midwest, in a kind of aesthetic culmination of the privileged meditative role that this area of the United States plays in Hollywood conceptions of American regionalism more generally.
As in his film essays, Kogonada evinces a wonderful eye for architectural space here, driven by immaculate framing and, once again, an especially Japanese sense of wabi-sabi, or the meditative pleasures of mild imperfection. In that sense, Columbus is the perfect backdrop for Kogonada’s camera, since many of its iconic buildings are also structured around this quest to be “assymetrical, but still balanced,” resulting in a perfect pairing of subject and treatment that suffuses every scene with a luminous, crystalline sense of space. Exploring and elaborating all the different sightlines offered up by these superb buildings, along with all the multifold ways of inhabiting their sightlines, Kogonada builds a profound architectural reverie – a tribute to the restorative power that comes from mystical communion with buildings, or immersion in buildings’ own mystical communion with their surrounds. Time and again, the action returns to the apprehension of buildings that settles when nobody else is around – quiet pockets of the afternoon, late at night – since many of the buildings seem designed expressly for these moments, or to evoke these moments even amidst their busiest and most functional periods. As a result, Columbus often feels like a drama that plays out in its entirety in the transitory spaces between buildings, and the small pockets of subjectivity that radiate around them. For the most part, even the erotic rapport between Casey and Jin is subsumed into the body heat given off by these buildings, with many of the romantically charged scenes taking place at the very cusp or periphery of the town’s most iconic structures, in the quiet end of the afternoon or the middle of the night.
Throughout that process, Columbus evokes a “modernism of the soul” in which the austerity and brutality of early twentieth century architecture has mellowed into a more healing function, with much of the action centering on an iconic mental health centre nestled into one of the most bucolic structures in the film. In part, that diminuition of modernist indifference is presented as a result of the more profoundly indifferent late capitalist infrastructure that has emerged around it. As Casey puts it to Jin, “meth is a big thing here – meth and modernism,” even as the landscapes more typically associated with meth are deftly excised from the film, which doesn’t offer a single glimpse of the rest of Columbus, nor even the most fleeting hint of a strip mall, freeway, suburban tract, or any other part of the lexicon of the Middle American sprawl. Yet while Casey might oppose meth and modernism, the two quickly become conjoined once she and Jin start to compare and contrast the parental issues that have turned Columbus into a juncture in their lives. On the one hand, the reason Casey can’t leave Columbus and follow her dreams of further study is because her mother is a recovering meth addict, having become hooked on the drug followed a terrible relationship with Casey’s father. On the other hand, the reason Jin wants to leave Columbus is because his father’s devotion to the phallic grandeur of his modernist architectural experiment meant that he largely sidelined his actual family to fully achieve it.
Between meth and modernism, then, the film deftly conjures the extent to which the utopian aspirations and dystopian impacts of modernist architecture were intertwined, but only for the sake of appealing to the more reparative and restorative elements of that matrix. Part of the reason Kogonada is able to do so is that Columbus’ modernist experiments didn’t halt mid-century, but continued up to the present, thanks to a systematic, ongoing commitment to public art and architecture on the part of successive town governments. It’s this sprawling afterlife of modernist phallic agency that the film inhabits, as Casey and Jin perform a kind of late modernist flanerie in which they peruse the very dispersal of the city’s buildings away from the solipsistic, sequestered, self-contained structure that they all, in some fashion, took as their original point of departure. Breaking that structure open, and evoking the ways the town continues to break it open, lends the film itself an extraordinary cathartic and restorative valency, as if the very fact of both directing and watching the film were to participate in a ongoing urban-utopian vision in which the most alienating tendencies of high modernism are remediated and rehabilitated.
And it’s that participatory quality, in the end, that makes Kogonada’s outlook so perfectly suited to the aesthetics of Columbus as a whole, since film essays about film tend to be participatory in nature, offering the director as viewer, but also allowing the viewer to feel more continuous with the process of direction as well. As Kogonada presents it, Columbus is that synergy grafted onto a cityscape – an urban essay about architecture in the same way that his own work consists of films about film – in which the auteurist ambitions of individual architects are collapsed into the strategies brokered by the city to allow its citizens to remake and reimagine those works in their own image. Against the modernist myth of the individual architectural genius, then, Columbus offers a different kind of postmodern cityscape from the one we’re usually treated to – one in which modernism hasn’t been entirely erased or subsumed into mass culture, but has been sufficiently contextualised and adumbrated to offer more points of access than were originally planned. A tribute to town planning more than architecture itself, or at least the work of any one architect, the great beauty of Columbus may take place largely in the backdrop of the narrative, but that’s the best way to testify to a city whose modernist structures have been incorporated into the texture of everyday life rather than commemorated and ossified as stand-alone monuments – a city in which modernist structures are only meaningful in situ, and in which modernism itself needs to be continually resituated to remain meaningful too.