Columbus is about distance — the physical distance of a faraway camera, and the emotional distance which stretches within this space. The distance between Korean-American book translator Jin (John Cho) and his comatose architecture scholar father; between young architecture enthusiast Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and her mother; between Casey and a far-flung dream she can hardly admit she wants.
Casey has lived in the town of Columbus her whole life. She’s smart enough to go to college but decides to stay in her hometown, working in the local library. In choosing to memorise tour guide trivia about Columbus’ famous modernist architecture, she fools herself into thinking that talking to people from around the world counts as a substitute for seeing the world. To leave Columbus would mean to leave her mother – a recovering meth addict – something she is not willing to do. In a role reversal where the child is more responsible for her parent, Casey tracks her mum’s every move out of worry, especially when her mother lies about being at work, and two-way communication is no longer a functional device between them.
On the other hand, Jin is an outsider. After his father suffers a coma while touring a modernist church in town, Jin arrives in Columbus, entering the hospital mere seconds after Casey’s mother leaves it through a revolving door, on the other side of the frame. He’s a book translator based in Korea, and the button up shirt and slacks ensemble in which he arrives denotes a worldly, cosmopolitan elegance that contrasts greatly with the casual faire we see in this pocket of rural Indiana. Before meeting Casey, his parameters are limited to wandering the ornate inn where he is staying, drinking at the inn’s bar, or standing by at the hospital. Waiting, waiting, waiting, Jin battles with the familial obligation of his Korean heritage, and how he’s expected to ‘perform’ his grief as is tradition: he and his father haven’t talked in over a year, their separation attributed to Jin being made to feel second place next to his father’s dedication to his work and students.
Jin and Casey don’t meet until 20 minutes into the film, but when it happens, the wide spaces they’ve created for themselves start to close in. In the garden of the inn, Jin speaks into his phone in Korean. Smoking nearby on the other side of the fence, Casey overhears his phone conversation. Her interest piques in hearing the foreign language—courtesy of a worldly distance to a place which is decidedly not Columbus, Indiana. When she offers him a cigarette, he hangs up his phone and responds to her in English. They walk beside each other on either side of the fence, talking. Putting two and two together, Casey mentions she was going to go to Jin’s father’s now-cancelled architecture talk in town. Jin has no interest in architecture, but recognises a spark in Casey, drawn in by her bright and inquisitive nature. In turn, she is drawn to his connection to a great architect, but also intrigued by what she could learn from an outsider. When you live in the same town your whole life, anyone new who enters is considerably more interesting. Further down the fence, the space between them becomes narrower until there is an open gate: with the divide of the fence gone, they learn each other’s names, and it sparks the beginnings of a new friendship.
There are parallels between the two protagonists: they both take on the role of caretakers. Casey won’t leave Columbus due to a self-prescribed responsibility to ensure her mother won’t relapse; Jin waits to see if his father will wake up. They are each lost and filled with their own specific breed of longing: Casey longs for the confidence that her mother will be okay on her own so that she can pursue the world. Jin longs to escape the oppressive weight of waiting for his father to wake up, and to avoid the public grief and the expectations which come with it. But they do not complete each other, they do not stereotypically fall in love to fill a void — they help each other.
Columbus is evocative of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) or Before Sunrise (1995) in the many languid, revelatory conversations between the two strangers as they explore their surroundings (a town; a city). This iteration ends with its duo parting, better for having known one another. Truth is, this is a story that could take place anywhere (Columbus; Hiroshima; Vienna). Yet, by making Casey an architecture enthusiast and Jin the son of a renowned architecture scholar, director Kogonada makes the town of Columbus (a mecca of modernist architecture) an integral part of the story. His use of pillow shots and wide angles grounds the film with a deep sense of place. This is also evoked by the way Casey counts down her favourite buildings with Jin, taking him to a strip mall parking lot to stare at windows of light in the middle of the night. She finds beauty, order, and awe in the buildings she’s been surrounded by her whole life, and it becomes a coping mechanism – her salvation.
Casey’s loving perspective of her hometown fuels her conversations with Jin, but also shackles her to her denial, to what she can’t admit to herself; that there is more than her current life. While showing Jin one of her favourite buildings, the large, square windows frame the pair in their own individual space. Casey is a fountain of facts and knowledge straight out of a tour guide commentary, and she gets lost in her passion. Her face is rarely shown purely: instead, it is in the reflection of a window that we see her extolling the radicalism of an all-glass bank. A cut to a long shot looks back at her while she keeps talking, body turned away from Jin. When Jin implores her to talk about what moves her about the building, beyond its history – the view is from behind the glass. Her mouth is moving, hands gesturing, but the audio is silent. At the height of her enthusiasm, we’re set apart from Casey: the beautiful architecture acting as a barrier between the viewer and Casey’s ability to reveal her true feelings, even if it’s just about a building.
Like the modernist buildings which occupy the town, the film itself is angular and balanced. Often, Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian keep the camera at a distance from the protagonists. Whether the frame is symmetrical or the characters only occupy one tiny sliver of the screen, the camera does not move: it observes in glorious long takes while life goes on in front of and around it. While an advantage of cinema is the camera’s ability to get up close and personal to a subject, Columbus’ observational distance and relative silence (the score, from ambient music duo Hammock, is sparingly used) allows us room to revel in the beauty of the everyday, and the love, grief, and fear which connects us as humans. At the end of the film, Casey is given the peace of mind to go to New York to study architecture, and Jin stays in Columbus to face his fears— they’re further apart than ever, but after all they’ve been through together, this distance somehow seems small and insignificant.
Columbus is now streaming on SBS On Demand.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis on Screen & Cultural Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.