Tourists come to Columbus, Indiana for its modernist architecture. Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) is one of the tour guides they might meet; she’s ranked all the cities buildings in her head and she’s practicing lines for her tour when we first meet. You might think it’s the perfect job as we find out that she's an ‘architecture nerd’, but as she recites her lines they’re defunct of emotion, the delivery is apathetic. Later when a new friend, Jin (John Cho) asks her to explain why the bank is one of her favourite buildings she again recites her lines. Jin quickly tells her to stop intellectualising it and instead to explain why she’s moved by it. He wants to know how a building moves somebody. We go to an interior shot and the audio cuts out. We see Casey speak; she looks moved, uninhibited. Maybe tour guiding isn’t the perfect job, it reminds me of Henry James line, “A course which had whetted our heroine’s curiosity without enabling her to satisfy it.”
Why does a building move you? Writer and director (and editor) Kogonada is postulating on the importance of art in this his debut feature: does art matter, and if so, why do these buildings matter? But his ‘Columbus’ is occupied with more than just this. By equal measure the film explores the parent-child relationship, or as Kogonada puts it, “the burden of being children.” Columbus brings together two very different children, with two very different parents, and unites them through their differences. The way the film cleverly layers these themes, whilst characterising Columbus and its architecture, more than justifies its spot in the NEXT category at Sundance this year.
The paths of Casey and Jin cross when Jin’s father falls ill whilst visiting Columbus to deliver an a speech to architecture students. There’s a synchronicity to their meeting, this mismatch need each other and to share their distinctions. During their intimate moments it feels as though Casey is sharing her innermost thoughts with somebody else for the first time (her mother is a recovering meth addict). We soon realise these protagonists are really quite different, in both interests and plight. Casey’s journey is grounded in, told through and ultimately inhibited by the relationship she has with her mother; Jin’s is with his father—she is too close to her, he is distanced from him. To sound a cliche they are different sides of the same coin.
Jin’s Father is a famous architect and Casey was going to hearing him speak. There’s a feeling that Jin’s Father travels a lot with his work, and this is why their relationship is strained. Jin also strikes us as the cosmopolitan type, which is in contrast to Casey who we might assume has never even left Indiana.
I like the way Kogonada slowly interweaves Jin’s story with Casey’s and the way he layers this with the themes of parenting and art. Early on Jin says he doesn't know or care about architecture, he talks about growing up around something and how that often means it feels like nothing—we take things for granted he means? Slowly, through his meetings with Casey, we begin to question his claim. Casey tells Jin how she only really discovered one building after her Mother started doing meth. She’s always lived in Columbus and around these buildings, but circumstances change, the buildings themselves don't, but their meaning does: art has the power to do that. Casey thinks these buildings are helping to heal her.
Consider the way Jin’s statement applies to parents and we see Kogonada’s smart framing; do we take parents for granted? Perhaps, but isn’t Jin longing for the relationship he had with his Father when he was growing up, when they were closer presumably.