Columbus is having a moment.
Opening last weekend was Exhibit Columbus, a showcase of installations by leading designers and architects scattered throughout Downtown Columbus. And opening this weekend in Indianapolis is a feature film that takes its name after the town often described as a Midwest modernist mecca.
Columbus is the the first feature of Nashville-based director Kogonada, who was born in South Korea and raised in the Midwest. It might be easy to see lead actor John Cho (of Harold and Kumar and rebooted Star Trek fame), who also came to the U.S. from South Korea as a young child, as a biographical stand-in for the director. But that’s probably too easy.
Cho plays Jin, the South Korean-born son of a famous architectural theorist. He would have no business or interest being in Columbus if his father hadn’t collapsed during a tour of local landmarks with his associate (Parker Posey). Since his father is in a coma in the local hospital, Jin has nothing to do but wait. It isn’t long before he runs into Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a 19-year old woman with an interest in architecture, who is trying to figure out what to do with her life. But since her mom happens to be a recovering meth addict — and Casey is keeping a watchful eye on her mom — this fact looms large in her thoughts as she contemplates her aspirations.
Before directing Columbus, Kogonada (His moniker is an homage to Kogo Nada, the screenwriting partner of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) was known for his video essays for Sight & Sound, where he explored techniques of directors ranging from Yasujiro Ozu to Richard Linklater. In his video “What is Neorealism?” he performs a thought experiment, contemplating how an old Hollywood director might slice and dice up the celluloid of an Italian neorealist film until only segments with major plot points would be left off the cutting room floor.
Kogonada speaks in that video essay of “a different kind of cinema … in which in-between moments seem to be essential, in which time and place seem more critical than plot or story.” And Columbus is filled with many of these in-between moments.
Too much for NPR’s Mark Jenkins, who telegraphed his displeasure with the title of his Aug. 3 review “Columbus is Soulless by Design” in which he compares the characters to “miniature humans in a 3D model of a modernist structure.” (Otherwise Columbus has generally received positive reviews.)
There are, it is true, moments where the characters spout philosophical texts at each other (as in many a film by Richard Linklater, a clear influence) that may test the patience of some viewers. But there is also much that is truly remarkable, and soulful, about this film. There’s the lush, lingering cinematography, dwelling as much on the iconic architecture as the characters. There’s the Asian-American romantic lead — a rarity in American film — with a hugely confident presence. But most of all, it’s genuinely felt moments of emotion conveyed by the actors that gives this “modernist structure,” electricity.
NUVO spoke by phone with Kogonada before the film’s opening.
DAN GROSSMAN: What inspired you to make Columbus. Was it the town? Was it the architecture?
KOGONADA: Partly. I was sort of working on a script that had to do with the burden that children have in regard to their parents, whether leaving them or having to deal with losing a parent through age. So I was working out some ideas, exploring those characters. But I hadn’t really put pen to paper and then I visited Columbus, separate from working on the script. And I had read about it in The New York Times so I wanted to visit. It was inspiring; almost immediately I felt so many feelings towards the town and the way it was making me think about being a modern human being and yet [it was] being contextualized in such a small town or a smaller city, also had a certain effect on me. And so, I started talking with my wife during lunch: I need to film in this town. Once I articulated this desire, the story that I had been working on really fleshed itself out; so really once I found a place for these characters in such a unique place, I think Columbus was really born there.
DAN: Is this film in any sense autobiographical, more than just, say, any work of art is autobiographical because you’re investing your life in it?
KOGONADA: Right. I think it’s the latter. I think there’s a lot of autobiography in the film. But it’s spread throughout. I think it would be easy for someone to [see Jin as] my story. There’s certainly elements of Jin that I relate to. But there are also certain elements of Casey that I really relate to. There was a moment in my life — for her, it’s architecture — for me it was cinema. But it came at a really important time in my life that created space for me to breathe and it was valuable. I came from more of a working class, immigrant family… once you have access to something in the realm of art that can speak to you, it can change you, and it can help you navigate life. And so there’s certainly autobiography there, and I think, honestly, it’s not located precisely in Jin.
DAN: What was the experience of working with the actors like?
KOGONADA: It was the unknown for even my producers and financiers. They knew that I had thought about film quite a bit and that I had a very strong idea about the aesthetic of this film. But that was an element that I didn’t have a lot of experience with. But it really did turn out to be one of the most meaningful parts of the process … There’s a lot of form in this film, architecture … But I don’t think the film has a soul without the actors. I think that they bring what is absolutely necessary or it’s purely about the cinematography. But it’s our desire to bring humanity into this story and the actors were so generous and so talented and so committed to this project that I really feel grateful.
DAN: I watched some of your video essays in which it seemed like you were talking about the architecture of film. I thought maybe there might be a connection there.
KOGONADA: I do think that they’re related in some ways and I do think the reasons I’m drawn to architecture are probably similar to the reasons why I’m drawn to film. In cinema there is a kind of construction of film. And I’ve said this in the past: I do feel like the material of cinema is time. And other people have said it long before I have. So I’m borrowing an insight. I do think that cinema is about time and that architecture is about space and of course, you can’t separate space and time … But there’s some sort of relationship between those two art forms that really are interesting to me.
DAN: Another thing about Columbus; it seems different from its surroundings. You drive half a mile from downtown and suddenly you’re in strip mall suburbia. It seems like what America could have been if people cared more about the buildings they made. Did anything similar occur to you, or was it something else?
KOGONADA: I think that’s the question that is so fascinating about Columbus is; does art and design matter? There’s this town, as you say, in the middle of strip malls and corn fields that almost made it a case study and it does suggest a town that has been very thoughtful about their building, that has brought in people who approach design in a very thoughtful way, and what does that mean?
When I spent time there, there was this real feeling of promise and possibility but there was also some melancholy. There are limits to the town. It’s not utopia. It doesn’t change everyone. But that fundamental question is right. All buildings have architecture. All buildings have someone designing them. And a lot of those designs are less thoughtful, I suppose. I didn’t want to suggest that any architect is not doing its job but maybe there are some limitations that they have to be frugal and utilitarian. You have these incredible masters of architecture who are designing for a small town. And they’re not trying to do something that’s ostentatious or costly. I think that they’re just being thoughtful. And some of these buildings are thoughtfully humble, you know?
DAN: You have that wonderful moment in the film where Casey says, and I think I’m paraphrasing, “Most people really don’t give a shit,[when it comes to Columbus architecture.]" And Jin says something to the effect that he doesn’t really care much about architecture either but it becomes apparent in the film that he cares more than he lets on. How did that scene develop?
KOGONADA: Yeah. I do think there is something about growing up with something. I remember talking to the daughter of this very well-known art collector. She had grown up with Picassos on the wall. … And I remember her telling me that they had meant absolutely nothing to her. They were just things that were on the wall … and then realizing as she got older that these were things to pay attention to, whether she liked them or not, that there might be something more there. I’ve thought about that too in my own life. When things become familiar, they might lose significance to you. And when I went to Columbus — when I returned to Columbus — I remember talking to some local people there about this incredible architecture and getting this feedback that for a lot of people it’s just there. Everybody knows that this town has some kind of significance but their own response that they’ve seen it all their lives … that they don’t see what other people may see.
So I do think that part of that dialogue and part of that experience for both of them is seeing something that has always been there. And I think that’s sort of true for all of us. Maybe we’re always searching for some truth that is out there, that we imagine … is in some cave in a desert or something. … But there’s a kind of duty and truth and poetry in our everyday lives that we’re just not attuned to. That we are searching for something that is outside the thing that is right before us, which might be as beautiful.
DAN: I think you talked about “in-between moments” in regard to Italian neorealism, in comparison to some of the old Hollywood directors. Do you come down on the side of giving the characters breathing room and letting the story develop in those in-between moments?
KOGONADA: I’m not trying to make a full judgement in that piece, that one is more important, but I wanted to point out that there are different kinds of cinema. And I think if you judge all movies by the same criteria. … you may wonder why certain movies seem much slower or seem to be diverting and kind of just dismiss it because you’re used to a kind of cinema where every moment is about a plot point. And it’s value is only as it serves the plot, and you have other filmmakers … I could name a number of them, who value moments in and of themselves. And they think that those moments are significant. Every cut in a film is a choice. And it is a choice based on something that you are valuing. So personally I’m really drawn to certain kinds of films that explore everyday moments, there’s no doubt. And I like other films that are not. But I think the films that stay with me are the kind of films that have everything to do with everyday life. I think a lot of films are escape from everyday life and they serve a purpose. Sometimes everyday life is hard and burdensome. You want some time away. But when you leave those films, sometimes everyday life feels even less significant to you, you know? But then there are films that bring value to those in-between moments and when you leave those films, you do feel like your own life even in the quiet moments of waiting, have value. And so yes, I do think that I’m drawn to that kind of film.
DAN: There’s one remarkable scene that you have. Jin asks Casey what really moves her about the architecture and you see her through the glass explaining it but you don’t hear what she says. And you’re wondering. And there’s this sense of mystery there. And there’s other times when there seems to be a sense of mystery. I was unsure what exactly happened in that hotel room at night between Jin and Casey. Is that sense of mystery important to you?
KOGONADA: Yeah, I think having a certain kind of absence that we have to fill is the kind of cinema that engages me. I think in a lot of movie-going experiences, if a character is looking at a book and saying something about the book, the next shot is going to be a closeup of the book. They are always going to give you access to all the information. And so we did make a choice to not always give all the information at times. So there are times when they’re referencing a notebook and we don’t cut into the notebook. Or, as you say, Casey is about to answer a question that’s pretty important and we don’t hear the answer. Playing with absence was a big part of the film, I think. In many ways thematically, the relationship between absence and presence in everyday life, in architecture, in film itself, was something that was being explored. And you’re right, I think absence in and of itself has a mystery to it. Even the absence of our loved ones, when they’re gone; we have to make sense of that. We all understand absence. It’s something that’s rational as well. But it’s also very mysterious. I’m drawn to that.
Columbus starts Friday Sept. 1 at Keystone Art Cinema. Sept 2: Q:A with Kogonada after 4:10 p.m. show. Q&A with Kogonada and John Cho after 6:55 show. Also Q&A on Sept 3 with Kogonada moderated by Julia Sweeney (former SNL castmember) after 1:15 and 4:10 shows.