Two lonely, lovely strangers tour build­ings, emo­tions in qui­etly cap­ti­vat­ing film

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC justin.chang@la­times.com

In one of the many con­ver­sa­tions that an­i­mate “Colum­bus,” a serenely in­tel­li­gent first fea­ture from Korean Amer­i­can writer-di­rec­tor Kog­o­nada, a part­time li­brar­ian named Casey (Ha­ley Lu Richard­son) and her co-worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin) dis­cuss a tricky dou­ble stan­dard. As Gabriel notes, some­one who loves video games but finds books bor­ing is crit­i­cized for hav­ing a short at­ten­tion span, while some­one with the op­po­site in­cli­na­tion is praised for hav­ing a long one. “It’s not a mat­ter of at­ten­tion span but of in­ter­est,” he says. “Are we los­ing in­ter­est in things that mat­ter?”

Mer­ci­fully, he does not go on to ex­tol the im­por­tance of gen­tle, gor­geously con­tem­pla­tive in­de­pen­dent films like this one, though by that point, “Colum­bus” has al­ready made the case in much more del­i­cate and per­sua­sive terms. With its quo­tid­ian rhythms, gos­samer-thin story and steady ac­cu­mu­la­tion of vis­ual won­ders, the movie may in­deed test the limits of your at­ten­tion span at times but al­ways in the in­ter­ests of ex­pand­ing your vi­sion and clar­i­fy­ing your per­cep­tions. If you find your­self los­ing in­ter­est, you have only your­self to blame.

The story fol­lows two lonely, lovely young strangers, Casey and Jin (John Cho), who strike up a friend­ship over sev­eral days spent walk­ing and talk­ing their way around Colum­bus, Ind. That city has at­tracted re­newed pub­lic­ity over the last year as the home­town of Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, but it in­trigues Kog­o­nada and his char­ac­ters for rea­sons that are more aes­thetic than po­lit­i­cal.

Colum­bus has long been cel­e­brated as an im­prob­a­ble en­clave of Mid­west­ern Mod­ernism, a pub­lic show­case for the splen­dors of Eero Saari­nen, I.M. Pei and other lead­ing ar­chi­tects. The city’s won­drous, slightly in­con­gru­ous de­sign holds a par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion for Casey, a re­cent high school grad­u­ate who lives with her mother (Michelle Forbes), a re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict. Jin, a book trans­la­tor in his mid-30s who lives in Seoul, has flown in to visit his sick fa­ther (Joseph Anthony Foronda), a renowned ar­chi­tec­ture scholar who sud­denly col­lapsed while tour­ing the city.

Casey takes care of her mother with a level of de­vo­tion that, as some ac­quain­tances are not too po­lite to point out, is hold­ing her back from her own am­bi­tions. Jin, mean­while, hasn’t spo­ken to his fa­ther in more than a year, and the old man’s con­di­tion looks se­ri­ous enough that he might never get the chance. For Casey, beau­ti­ful build­ings have been an in­spi­ra­tion and an es­cape from the trou­bles of real life; for Jin, they have been a source of in­dif­fer­ence and re­sent­ment, a re­minder of a par­ent who paid more at­ten­tion to his vo­ca­tion than to his child.

Th­ese sharp con­trasts in fil­ial de­vo­tion and per­sonal passion de­fine the char­ac­ters as starkly as their more ob­vi­ous gen­der and cul­tural dif­fer­ences, but they also lend the story a pre­cise, pleas­ingly low-key sym­me­try. (The sound­ing-board char­ac­ter of Gabriel is matched on Jin’s side by Eleanor, a long­time friend and as­so­ciate of his fa­ther’s, ter­rif­i­cally played by Parker Posey.) We’re watch­ing a story about two peo­ple who have tried, in very dif­fer­ent ways, to avoid the burden of pain, even as shift­ing cir­cum­stances force them both to re­con­sider their def­i­ni­tions of home.

Sym­me­try, of course, can dou­ble as both a nar­ra­tive con­ceit and an ar­chi­tec­tural ideal, and one of the plea­sures of “Colum­bus” is its struc­tural so­phis­ti­ca­tion, the way it sculpts its slen­der, en­tirely be­liev­able al­most­love story into a dra­matic shape that feels at once con­crete and elusive. Kog­o­nada’s pre­cise, mea­sured edit­ing of­fers the cine­matic equiv­a­lent of clean lines and pol­ished edges. The images, beau­ti­fully lighted and metic­u­lously com­posed by Elisha Chris­tian, play in­ge­nious tricks with depth, fo­cus and per­spec­tive, fram­ing Jin and Casey not just against stun­ning build­ings but also through door­ways, down cor­ri­dors and even from the backseat of a car.

Richard­son, so warmly en­gag­ing in movies like “The Edge of Seven­teen” and “The Bronze,” and Cho, whose whip-smart charisma has long war­ranted more lead­ing roles like this one, are so ap­peal­ing that you’d gladly watch them in a pic­ture with a less in­ci­sive sense of place. Few films are this sen­si­tively at­tuned to their char­ac­ters’ dwelling spa­ces; fewer still can make those spa­ces feel as charged with mean­ing as the in­ter­ac­tions that play out within them.

Kog­o­nada’s at­ten­tion to vis­ual form will come as lit­tle sur­prise to cinephiles who have seen his video es­says an­a­lyz­ing the work of film­mak­ers in­clud­ing Stan­ley Kubrick, Robert Bres­son, Ya­su­jiro Ozu and Richard Lin­klater. (The lat­ter two, with their blend of bit­ter­sweet in­ti­macy and low-key for­mal­ism, feel like es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in­flu­ences here.) What’s re­mark­able about this won­drously as­sured de­but is that tech­nique never over­whelms feel­ing, in part be­cause Kog­o­nada makes the two seem in­ex­tri­ca­bly, har­mo­niously linked.

“What moves you, par­tic­u­larly, about a build­ing?” Jin asks Casey in one scene, af­ter she’s care­fully laid out the his­tory of the one-story glass struc­ture that once housed Colum­bus’ Ir­win Union Bank. It’s a pointed ques­tion; he’s try­ing to push her past a strictly in­tel­lec­tual re­sponse to­ward a more per­sonal, hu­man one. But “Colum­bus” un­der­stands that there’s less of a dif­fer­ence than we might think. It never lets you see where think­ing ends and feel­ing be­gins.

Elisha Chris­tian Su­perla­tive Films / Depth of Field

CASEY (Ha­ley Lu Richard­son) and Jin (John Cho) strike up a friend­ship as they talk and walk around town, a mecca to Mod­ernism, in this film of vis­ual won­ders.

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