Back when I was writing my review of Leave No Trace I was trying to think of films that used a minimalist approach successfully. It’s a hard nut to crack and for every Drive there is a To The Wonder. For example, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a marvel of minimalist cinema with very little dialogue, story or even sense while still being an unbelievably full viewing experience. On the other end of the spectrum though there is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that uses dead air and silence as an allegory for loneliness, the kind of loneliness that comes from isolation and paranoia. It should work, it doesn’t as the film’s man vs machine plot falls flat due to a group of characters you care little for because, for one simple reason, they don’t talk.
Luckily Columbus falls into the success column thanks to a simple story, some well-developed yet long-suffering characters and a visual display that adds not only to the character of Columbus but the minds of the people within it. This may be a tale about two people but at its heart it might just be how we may find similarities wherever we are if we, like Ferris Bueller suggests, take a second and look around at the life and lives we may be missing.
Columbus is the story of Jin (John Cho), a man arriving in Columbus, Indiana from Seoul to visit his father in the hospital after he collapsed and fell into a coma. While stuck in limbo in the city he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman in a similar predicament. She finds herself forced to stay in Columbus despite an alluring offer because her mother, a recently clean drug addict, needs her to stay, or so she thinks. The two listen to each others stories as they find things to occupy their time in a place they both find themselves stuck in, for better or for worse.
While Jin, in his mid 30s, early 40s has a strong sense of cynicism and cares little for the town he finds himself bound, Casey still has that hopeful youth so she has connected with the history of Columbus through its architecture. This idea of conveying feeling through shape is an extremely romantic notion, one the film isn’t above ridiculing by suggesting it may be something architects tell themselves to add some hidden meaning to their designs. However director Kogonada attempts to disprove this by linking his characters journeys to the buildings and shots he uses.
The film has a powerful connection to balance. Despite their complete lack of it, Jin and Casey seek it out, to find the answers to the questions they didn’t even know they wanted answered. Kogonada uses symmetry as a way of displaying both balance and peace throughout the film and juxtaposes it with asymmetrical shots to convey discontent and imbalance instead of forcing his characters into clunky expositional diatribes. When Casey and Jin do convey something, its through action or inaction. Be it Casey trying to let go of a betrayal through dancing, freedom of movement she so desperately desires or Jin embracing stillness and contemplation, something he seems to spend most of his time avoiding.
Cho and Richardson bring to life not just these characters slow realisations of the changes they have to force upon themselves but they also build a friendship that feels real from the awkwardness of their first meeting to the inconsequential impact of their first fight. These two make a meet cute seem almost destined but not in any romantic sense. Their connection transcends the emotional and intellectual. You could just put it down to two lost people finding answers through someone else but that does both of them, and the film, a disservice. If anything Kogonada isn’t a minimalist, he’s a naturalist.
While the film takes place within this bubble of tranquillity, the city of Columbus, there is this sense that there is more going on, lives being lived and more to discover as they peruse the buildings Casey so adores. In a way this sense of wonder she has proves infectious, not just for Jin but the viewer as well. It’s hard not to be stunned by some of the artistic shots and interesting buildings on display. The idea of symmetry does hint at a push/pull for both of them, the question of should I stay or should I go, but it also implies they are within something, a connection that their discussions have created that protects them from the darkness and self-doubt they both have been wounded by before.
The simple concept that it’s the things we don’t say that mean the most has always been true. Be it Jin’s love for his father despite his protestations otherwise or Casey’s disappointment in her mother. The old saying ‘it takes one to know one’ frequently comes to mind and these two seem to be able to cut through each others bullshit and read between the lines, another element accentuated by the centred photography. These two meet in the middle.
The best part however is how Kogonada bursts this perfectly centred bubble, upsets the status quo while reminding you that life is cyclical, while one thing changes for the better, another changes for the worse. At its core, he has told a film about life and how even the most resolute people can become indecisive while a bitter cynic can learn to dream again. They might end up going back to how they were but for now these two have become something else, they have learnt and its very rare to see that without hearing it first and that is a beautiful thing to watch.