While it’s exciting to discover completely unknown directors, it’s equally—if not more—interesting to watch a (relatively) well-known artist transition into feature filmmaking. Making his debut with Columbus, Kogonada (best known as a video essayist for Criterion, Sight and Sound, and others) channels his talents into a clearer narrative mode, charting the chance meeting of two lost, kindred souls in the architectural haven that is Columbus, Indiana. The pair in question: Jin (John Cho), a translator of literature who travels to Columbus after his father (a professor of architecture) is hospitalized, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a lover of architecture who’s lived there all her life with her mom (a recovering drug addict).
While many debuts are characterized by a kind of unbridled, messy sense of play, Kogonada’s has a meticulous formal control that, at least in concept, is admirable. It’s not a video essay, but it’s similarly conscious of making each shot count. What it shows is a director clearly thinking through every moment, but often laboriously so. The film practically annotates itself, commenting on its own visual and narrative strategies (“Asymmetrical, but also still balanced”), its attempted tone and mood (“something a little more subtle…less obvious”), and even the choice of subject (a “crisis of interest”). There’s definite potential here, but the overall impression Columbus leaves is of a hermetically sealed idea, an airless rumination on architecture and our interaction with it, characterized mainly by fastidious compositions (so relentlessly symmetric they’d make Wes Anderson blush) and plodding earnestness. And while Kogonada is adept at crafting gorgeous images, his ability to direct actors is sorely lacking, a fact underscored by the bland, generally “meaningful” dialogue. Put another way, Columbus has the inner life of architectural blueprint. Then again, such an object has its own sort of beauty.
Published as part of BAMcinemaFest 2017 | Dispatch 1.