Art and film: Kogonada and Modernism in “Columbus”

The characters discuss Eero Saarinen’s architecture in Kogonada’s first feature film, Columbus.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Columbus is a serenely penetrating postmodern film, acted with realistic understatement and set in the eponymous city in Indiana – coincidentally if perhaps ironically, Mike Pence’s home town. Directed by the young South Korean filmmaker Kogonada (remarkably, it’s his first feature), the movie involves the convergence of two people from very different cultures and backgrounds. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a provincial young American woman from Columbus who works in a library, saddled with a troubled mother who is a former meth addict. Jin (John Cho) is a slightly older, quite privileged South Korean man who has come to see his stricken and hospitalized father, an eminent but emotionally distant architect who teaches in Columbus. She’s a stuck library worker, he’s an itinerant translator.

Columbus is an improbable hub of pristine modernist architecture, which Casey loves essentially because it calms her and Jin hates mainly because it has consumed his father at his expense. Kogonada is resolutely unconcerned about current expectations or slick hipness. They meet, not quite cute, when each has bolted social trappings for a secluded cigarette. Smoking unites Jin and Casey, and their friendship blossoms initially from her adamant but rather geeky rekindling of his appreciation for architecture. Their physical interaction is restrained, well-nigh Victorian, in its agonizingly platonic cast. But the two get fairly promiscuous in their emotional explorations, drilling deeply into their messy personal lives.

Even that turbulence is conveyed quiescently through Kogonada’s technique of intimately traversing household floor plans at eye level, exposing evidence of complexity, damage, and unworkable flirtations in tinted light. This deftly deployed device recalls the films of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and, more obliquely, interior scenes painted by Vermeer, Hopper, and David Hockney. Overall, the story is both a critique of the hardwired restlessness of contemporary life and a paean to empathy as an antidote. For Kogonada, modernity, neat as it is, can’t erase the perpetual challenge of intergenerational friction and the corresponding indispensability of humanism. He’s cool with that, yet also sublimely insistent about it.

Columbus, 2017, written and directed by Kogonada. A Superlative Films and Depth of Field production.

Related posts:
Looking back: Precisionism, Part I
The new Whitney
Architecture as muse at Union College
Rounding the corner: Joan Waltemath at Anita Rogers

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *