If you’ve had your fill of this summer’s endless offerings of comic book heroes and things that go BOOM!, you could do far worse than spend a couple of hours cleansing your palate with the quiet, masterful cinematic debut of writer/ director/ editor Kogonada. The noted video essayist has previously cut together layered deconstructions of the work of directors such as deceased Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu and his contemporary counterpart, Hirokazu Koreeda. In Columbus, Kogonada wears his influences on his sleeve (even his name is borrowed from Ozu’s screenwriting partner, Kogo Noda), but unlike many first-time directors, he’s created something greater than a mere homage.
Certainly, Kogonada and his talented cinematographer Elisha Christian expertly utilize the one-point perspective favored by Ozu and auteurs like Stanley Kubrick. There’s also at least one moment where they casually observe children at play—a move that’s straight out of Koreeda’s playbook. But while it’s safe to say that Kogonada has drawn on the deep well of his influences, he also avoids simply copying his cinematic forebears, even as he adopts a style that’s far more Asian-influenced than your average American independent.
Nevertheless, his young heroine, recent high school graduate Casey (Haley Lu Richardson from last year’s Split and The Edge of Seventeen, making a hugely expressive breakthrough in a lead role) is very much an American analogue of the type of character typically played by Setsuko Hara in one of Ozu’s many family dramas. She’s selflessly willing to sacrifice her own hopes and dreams in order to care for a parent, and in Ozu’s case, this was almost universally a father played in numerous films by the great Chishu Ryu. But here, the parent is a maternal one, Maria (Michelle Forbes), who’s part of the working class and also a recovering meth addict.
“Meth and modernism are really big here,” Casey observes during one of her extended chats with Jin (John Cho in a more muted mode than his turns as Sulu in Star Trek), a translator for a Korean book publisher. Jin has flown from Seoul to Columbus, Indiana, to be at the bedside of his estranged father, a renowned architect who fell ill during the film’s opening scene and now lies comatose as his partner Eleanor (Parker Posey, doing reliably good work in a small role) sits vigil.
Casey and Jin first cross paths at the local library, where she has a job made more tolerable due to the attention of Gabe (Rory Culkin), an overeducated introvert who enjoys his job precisely because he has the privilege of working alongside her. One day, she’s snapped out of her metaphorical catatonia when she observes Jin exiting a cab at the hospital, across the street from the library.
Encountering him a second time on a smoke break, she overhears him speaking Korean on the phone. Offering this captivating—if initially abrasive—man a cigarette, she inquires if he might be related to Jae Yong Lee (Joseph Anthony Foronda), the visiting lecturer who she was planning to go see. She soon discovers that the professor is Jin’s father, and a tentative friendship forms as Casey becomes what Jin calls his “tour guide,” showing him a number of Columbus’ architectural landmarks in this modernist mecca that’s home to structures by I.M. Pei, James Polshek and Eero Saarinen.
At first, she doesn’t believe him when he tells her, “I don’t know shit about architecture, or care.” But he’s captivated enough by her passion that he continues to indulge her as their casual strolls increase in frequency, and their conversations drift toward the parental problems that keep them both walking in circles.
While Kogonada is fairly anonymous—and his birth name remains a mystery—a few biographical details have emerged; like Jin, he’s from Seoul. He immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a child, eventually landing in the Midwest. Despite this, it’s Casey who stands as Kogonada’s surrogate—a supremely bright individual who deconstructs art while sharing a passion and enthusiasm with others.
While you may admire the scenery and learn a bit about Columbus’ architectural history, it’s the superb, understated performances that make the movie’s minimalist plot work. As friends, Richardson and Cho project a shared intimacy that’s rarely captured so well, and like the best onscreen couples, Casey and Jin linger in your memory long after the credits have rolled. ◆
Starring John Cho, Haley Lu, Richardson, Michelle Forbes, Rory Culkin, Erin Allegretti, Shani Salyers Stiles, Reen Vogel, Rosalyn Ross, Lindsey Shope, Jem Cohen, Caitlin Ewald, Jim Dougherty, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Alphaeus Green Jr., Wynn Reichert and Parker Posey. Written, directed and edited by Kogonada. At the Brattle Theatre from Sept. 8-14.