Few films are as attentive to the spaces inhabited by their characters as “Columbus,” a meticulously assured debut from one-named-wonder Kogonada.
Set in the Indiana town known as the “modernist mecca of the Midwest,” it’s a movie with a visual language all its own, in which architecture speaks louder than words. John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson star as a couple of lost souls in stasis, each with family responsibilities confining them to this limbo of astonishing glass and concrete buildings where the structures say what the characters cannot.
Playing at the Brattle Theatre from Sept. 8 - 14, “Columbus” is an audaciously quiet picture, but don’t let that fool you. Beneath these placid exteriors and immaculate compositions, intense emotions roil.
A world-renowned architecture scholar collapses shortly before a university speaking engagement and lies comatose in the hospital, prompting his estranged son Jin (forcefully played by Cho) to fly in from Seoul and sit vigil. The old man never had much time for the kid, who’s now entering middle age with a hefty chip on his shoulder and is not at all thrilled that filial duty compels him to hang around an unfamiliar city waiting for his father to die.
Bookish, 19-year-old Casey (Richardson) stayed in Columbus after all her friends went off to college, partially for financial reasons but mostly to keep an eye on her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes). “Meth and modernism are big here,” Casey wisecracks while trying to be cavalier, but one of the wonders of Richardson’s star-making performance is how vividly we can see the hurt bubbling up behind her eyes every time she mentions her mom.
These two meet over cigarettes outside the I.M. Pei-designed library where Casey works. Their exchanges are flinty at first, but with a curiosity that grows into affection over time. Jin never gave a damn about architecture, claiming, “When you grow up around something, it’s nothing.” Casey’s a walking contradiction to that theory, taking solace throughout her troubled young life from the beauty of these buildings and eventually bringing Jin around to see her favorites, of which she keeps a numbered list.
The spaces and surfaces stand in for what these characters are not yet ready to share, with Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian making incredibly expressive use of their surroundings. Scenes can be as simple as Cho and Richardson walking along, chatting on opposite sides of a fence that comes to an end when they reach an understanding. Or they can get as complex as an elaborately choreographed sequence between Jin and his father’s assistant (and maybe mistress), played by Parker Posey, which we watch entirely through reflections moving between bedroom and bathroom mirrors.
The screen is almost always broken up into frames inside of frames, favoring deep-focus shots in which foreground obstacles either wall these characters off from one another or isolate them together in a little box of their own, positioned against the rest of the world. When indoors you’ll usually find the camera a couple of rooms away from the action, capturing the scene through doorways inside other doorways.
Kogonada is a video essayist and cinema history scholar whose work has appeared on many Criterion Collection supplements (his website is a great place to lose a couple of hours), and the filmmaking choices here exhibit a bone-deep understanding of visual storytelling that’s remarkable for a first-timer. “Columbus” is the kind of movie you can watch with the sound turned off and get the gist of it just fine.
Perhaps inevitably, Kogonada’s screenwriting isn’t as sophisticated as his direction. A couple of clunker speeches over-explain themes we’ve already gleaned, but they’re brought off by the enormously charismatic leads. John Cho has largely been relegated to playing some form of emasculated Asian sidekick or another ever since “American Pie,” so it’s pleasantly startling to see what a dashing leading man he can be. (You’d never know from the “Harold and Kumar” movies but the dude can really wear a suit.)
Yet “Columbus” ultimately belongs to Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey, who manages to somehow be both world-weary and innocent, at once jaded and afraid. It’s hard to imagine many young actresses capable of selling passionate academic monologues about architecture, but Richardson has got one of those faces that appear incapable of concealing emotions — a flood of feelings always just beneath the surface.
The buildings serve as something like a Greek chorus throughout, underlining elements of the story. It’s not for nothing that Kogonada keeps cutting back to Columbus City Hall, with its two outstretched brick arms that get awfully close but never quite join together.
“Columbus” screens at the Brattle Theatre Sept. 8 - 14. Writer-director Kogonada will be at the 4:30 and 7:15 p.m. shows on Sunday, Sept. 10.