The significance of Columbus, Indiana’s architectural landmarks was lost on me as a young man growing up a rural part of the state. I had visited the city on several occasions, and could recognize the beauty in many of its buildings, but it wasn’t until I grew much older that I came to grasp what an important destination it was for architecture enthusiasts. “I hear it’s quite the Mecca,” says Jin (John Cho), and he’s not mistaken.
Jin has come to Columbus after his father, a respected professor, suddenly fell into a coma prior to giving a lecture. The men haven’t spoken in more than a year, yet Jin still feels honor-bound to remain nearby – as he laments to his father’s longtime assistant (Parker Posey), Korean custom expects this from him. Feeling adrift and isolated, Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a twentysomething native whose feelings on architecture – and Jin’s father – couldn’t be more different.
In most films, this meeting would spark the beginning of a romantic connection, but writer-director Kogonada (making his feature debut) has a different idea in mind. Casey finds herself able to open up to this stranger in a way that she never could with her best friend (Rory Culkin), and she confesses to feeling an obligation to put her own future in hold in order to take care of her mother, a recovering meth addict working multiple jobs to stay afloat. As for Jin, he’s able to be honest about his feelings toward his father, perhaps for the first time in his life, and we get the sense that both of these souls may have remained trapped if not for each other.
Many of the interactions between Jin and Casey take place as she introduces him to the town’s various landmarks, which affords Kogonada an opportunity to utilize the architecture of Columbus to frame some incredibly beautiful shots. Bridges, hallways and building exteriors – all things we tend to take for granted – are transformed into something truly breathtaking here. In one scene, Casey reflects on the “healing power” of architecture, and Kogonada ensures the audience is able to feel it.
The soft, quiet nature of Columbus – there are numerous long stretches with little to no dialogue, and the score is noticeably understated – may not appeal to everyone, but Kogonada is trying to motivate the audience to look beyond convention, much in the same way that Jin does when Casey rattles off a series of facts about a particular location. “Cut the tour guide stuff,” he insists, pressuring her to reach for a deeper meaning that she connects to on a personal level, and viewers willing to follow suit are likely to find something truly special at the heart of this film.