The drama “Columbus,” a tour de force of emotional intensity and restraint by the one-named writer-director-editor Kogonada, proves the point that any topic — no matter how boring it may seem — can be made into a fascinating movie with enough care, passion and emotional depth.
The title refers to the town of Columbus, Ind., which is home to an unusual concentration of buildings designed in the Modern architecture movement — most notably buildings designed by Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero Saarinen. All these buildings are why a noted Korean architect is visiting Columbus, but he collapses and is hospitalized before his scheduled lecture.
The architect’s assistant, Eleanor (Parker Posey), calls the man’s son, Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American working in Seoul as a translator for a publishing company. Jin flies in to Columbus but finds there’s little he can do except wait alongside his comatose father. Instead, he walks around the town, taking in the views.
That’s how Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a 19-year-old woman working in the town library (which, like everything else in Columbus, is impeccably designed). Casey is fascinated by the architecture in her hometown, but her dreams of becoming an architect have been put on indefinite hold.
Jin and Casey talk about architecture, which she enthuses about but he dislikes. As their walks and conversations get longer and more in depth, Jin reveals that his father showed his love for architecture more than any feelings for his son. Casey talks about why she hasn’t gone off to college, because she’s watching over her mother (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict.
Every image in Kogonada’s debut film is perfect composed, as he lets the viewer soak in long takes of the actors’ quiet interactions. The actors, Cho and Richardson in particular, take their cues from the director’s minimalist approach, never shouting when a quiet voice will convey more emotion.
Casey at one point describes a building as “asymmetrical, but still balanced,” and that sentence also fits Kogonada’s exquisite framing. Sometimes he superimposes Jin and Casey in front of or inside one of Columbus’ spectacular buildings. Other times, such as when he frames Jin and Eleanor in a mirror occupying a corner of a bed-and-breakfast bedroom, he places the actors in a room, juxtaposing their interaction with a view of a bathroom sink.
Kogonada’s uncanny ability to link buildings and people, showing how Jin and Casey can connect over a shared interest in architecture and a common bond of parental problems, makes “Columbus” a tender, beautiful gem that should not be overlooked.
* * * 1/2
An architect’s son and a young woman form a bond over architecture in this quietly lyrical movie.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City).
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 13.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for some sexual content, drug content and language.
Running time • 103 minutes.