Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star Rating (1-5): 5
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted
What a delightful film by first-time writer/director . His Columbus is named after the small Indiana town it is set in, not the explorer who also gave his name to a holiday. This is a slow-paced study of a relationship that develops between a visitor to the city and a young native who loves its many examples of modernist architecture and is eager to show them off. Were this directed by a run of the mill director, it probably would be the story of a romance between a mature man and a girl barely out of high school, but Kogonada’s vision stretches far beyond that of the ordinary filmmaker. He is more interested in ideas than romantic relationships.
The story begins with a long shot of an old man walking along a colonnade. He disappears, and a woman runs after him, calling out in alarm. This at first puzzling incident is explained as the film progresses. The man is a Korean-American professor of architecture visiting Columbus because this mid-western town is the unlikely site of dozens upon dozens of modernist structures that have turned the quiet little town into a Mecca for architecture aficionados. (The movie never mentions that the town’s benefactor was the head of the main local industry, Cummins Diesel, J. Irwin Miller, who loved modernist architecture so much that he offered to pay the architects for all businesses and organizations that wanted to erect a new building—provided that the architect was on his approved list. *)
We soon meet the two main protagonists, Jin (John Cho), the grown son of the stricken professor; and Cassandra, known as Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local girl working at the library housed in a building designed by I.M. Pei. After the two meet one night and at first exchange pleasantries, they meet again and again over a period of several days, she finding in him an outlet for sharing her love and knowledge of the local architecture, and he becoming concerned that such a bright girl has given up her plans to go to college. Professing not to be interested in architecture itself, he insists that when she takes him to a building, she not offer a tour guide explanation of it, but rather, talk about her feelings evoked by the structure.
From their discourses we learn that Jin’s stricken father is in a coma—we never see him or his hospital room, the camera again just providing a long shot of Jin walking the hospital corridor toward his father’s room. There is one other visitor who had preceded Jin, Eleanor (Parker Posey), some kind of an associate of the professor. It was she who had summoned Jin back from Korea, to which he had gone to work as a translator of literature. For an undisclosed reason the father and son had not been in touch for years. In a brief scene when he tries to kiss Eleanor, we see that he at least had wanted a romantic relationship. He longs to leave town, feeling trapped by his father’s condition.
Although Casey often talks with fellow library employee Gabriel (Gabriel Rory Culkin), it is the developing relationship with Jin that is the focus of the simple plot. The visitor, sensing from her comments that she makes about the various buildings they visit that she is highly intelligent, thinks she is wasting her life by not going on to college. She counters that she cannot leave her working-class mother Maria (Michelle Forbes) because the woman is recovering from drug addiction. Not only her words, but the frequent phone calls Casey makes when Maria is at work, reveal the deep love and concern she feels for her still fragile parent. We see the contrast between the girl and Jin in that Casey never expresses any feeling of being trapped. She loves her mother too much to even entertain such a thought.
By the end of the film visitor and guide will have a great impact on each other—the son with his initial feelings of guilt concerning his estranged father, and Casey with a newly awakened need to look toward her own future as well as that of her mother’s.
Having enjoyed a visit to Columbus several years ago, I enjoyed seeing such iconic examples of modernist architecture as The Robert N. Stewart Bridge, the soaring spire of The North Christian Church, the inside of the Miller House with its sunken conversation pit, and many other magnificent buildings and large public sculptures. (Casey first meets Jin between the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and the Inn at Irwin Gardens, two striking locations.) And for a break from modernism, there is an old covered bridge incorporated into a park where the two friends also converse. But don’t let me mislead you into thinking this is a didactic affair—few of the buildings are identified, the pair when talking at all about architecture, speaking more in generalities, such as how as we shape our buildings, they in turn shape us.
You will come away from this film feeling good about the characters and the world. Casey, a likeable young person willing to sacrifice her own desires, is brilliantly brought to life by Haley Lu Richardson, an actress whom I am sure we will be seeing in more films. And John Cho, whom we first saw in the Harold and Kumar films and who shot to stardom as Sulu in 2009’s Star Trek, as the pensive son conflicted by his feelings toward his ill father and his sense of being stranded in a small American town.
These are two people of diverse cultures, gender, and age, and yet who for the moment are just right for each other. In the New Testament there are two words for time, “chronos” meaning clock or calendar time, and “kairos,” meaning just the right or opportune time, as in Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…” The events of this meditative film transpire in kairos time. Jin and Casey meet at the right time when each of them needs what the other has to give, and each is open to receive the gift.
Whether or not we like architecture, including modernist, maybe Kogonada’s film will make us more aware of the spaces that we inhabit and walk in and out of each day with scarcely a thought about them. And I for one hope to see more work by this gifted filmmaker who has assumed an interesting nom de guerre.**
* Go to https://columbus.in.us/architecture-story/ for fuller information about this amazing man and town. Early in my ministry, I had first come to admire Mr. Miller because of his leadership in the ecumenical movement. He was one of the founders in 1950 of The National Council of Churches and served as its president from 1960 through 1963, thus becoming one of the sponsors of the March on Washington. Long a supporter of diversity in the work place, his ethical business practices led Dr. King to call him “the most socially responsible businessman in the country.”
** There is scant bio information about this South Korean born artist known for his video essays that are mostly about film directors. One site informs us that his nom de guerre stems from his admiration of the work of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, and that his pseudonym is a tribute to Ozu’s screenwriting partner, Kōgo Noda. He was raised in the Midwest and currently lives with his wife in Nashville, Tennessee. Of the many “Kogonada” websites, here is one that includes a number of his web videos. It’s hosted by the BFI, the British Film Institute. http://www.bfi.org.uk/people/kogonada
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the November issue of Visual Parables.