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Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus
Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus

Columbus is a movie about architecture that is, somehow, mesmerising

Korean filmmaker Kogonada explains how he found the soul in buildings for his debut feature film

Does the shape of a building have the power to heal? In Columbus, Indiana, a city renowned for its modernist architecture, the Quinco Mental Health Centre was specifically constructed to resemble a bridge. Its designer, James Polshek, believed that architecture holds a moral responsibility, and that the hospital’s dimensions should serve as a literal and metaphorical “bridge to mental health”. The rest of Columbus is populated with similarly thoughtful, aesthetic wonders. In 1957, a local foundation was launched to fund emerging talent with an eye for design. According to NPR, Columbus is now “a Midwestern Mecca of architecture”. The city’s 44,000 residents, one must assume, are mesmerised on a daily basis, right?

Maybe not. In director Kogonada’s poignant debut, Columbus, only two people seem to appreciate their surroundings. One of them is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a librarian and self-confessed architecture geek. She can rank her top five buildings, has aspirations in the field, and early on voices a complaint: “You’d be surprised how little people know or care about architecture here.” The other observer is Jin (John Cho), a Korean translator who flies in when his father, an architecture academic, falls into a coma. Casey, a fan of Jin’s father, strikes up a conversation with Jin outside Eliel Saarinen’s famed First Christian Church. Within minutes, they’re discussing the building’s asymmetrical symbolism.

In terms of style, the film’s visuals are as precise and evocative as the architecture itself. First off, the camera rarely moves. As a viewer, we instead study the beauty of the frame, often scrutinising how a structure in the background establishes the mood of a scene. Redolent of classic Japanese cinema, like Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the stillness reinforces the significance of Kogonada’s pseudonym – a reference to Ozu’s regular co-writer, KogoNada. In my mind, Columbus is a modern, American-set Ozu film. In fact, this is what I tell Kogonada when we speak over the phone.

“No, no, no!” the Korean filmmaker laughs. “I’m just beginning. I would never – never! – compare myself to Ozu. That would be really presumptuous. But Ozu’s films had such a deep impact. He was one of the great modernist artists who, in the very DNA of cinema, was connecting us to a way of being. There was a real crisis in post-war Japan, and really in modernity in general. Ozu asked: how can we be modern without losing our souls?”

The first time Kogonada visited Columbus, it was as an avid architecture fan, not a director. At that point, the script was just a vague idea about children and absent parents. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted to make a film in Columbus,” he recalls. “It represented something that had been on my mind for years, which is: the promise and limitations of modernism. It was beautiful to me, not just aesthetically, but the pursuit of modernism. The town represents this promise and this dream that forms can matter.”

Of course, Kogonada should already be familiar to cinephiles. Before Columbus, the LA-based writer-director created video essays – many for Criterion and the BFI – about Stanley KubrickWes AndersonRichard LinklaterDarren Aronofsky and, yes, Ozu. It was his Sight & Sound-commissioned appreciation of Hirokazu Koreeda that attracted the attention of Hollywood bigwig Chris Weitz. Twitter DMs soon led to emails, a screenplay was sent, and Weitz became the producer.

That said, Columbus faced a rocky road to production. Weitz hooked Kogonada up with Cho, an actor who, by then, had already starred in Star Trek, led a Harold & Kumar trilogy, and introduced the word “MILF” to pop culture. But financiers – several of them – balked at the prospect of funding a movie with an Asian male lead, even one with Cho’s name recognition. It makes me wonder how people, in a professional setting, rationalise that a story isn’t worth telling because of an actor’s skin colour. How did they actually justify it to Kogonada’s face?

“There’s always been this myth that no one’s interested in African-American leads except African-Americans, and the same is true with Asian-American leads. Fortunately, the last couple of years have challenged those myths” – Kogonada

“I was never in the room,” the director explains. “The producers said that I couldn’t get in the room because the financiers didn’t think there was monetary value in an Asian-American lead. But Chris was always a champion of John Cho. There’s always been this myth that no one’s interested in African-American leads except African-Americans, and the same is true with Asian-American leads. Fortunately, the last couple of years have challenged those myths, by audiences responding to a number of movies with leads that are women or people of diversity.”

A more forgivable reason to be sceptical about Columbus is the subject matter. The famous phrase, often attributed to dead rock stars, is that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. In Columbus, Jin and Casey don’t even dance – they talk, slowly. Some films that obsess over architecture – I’m looking at you, La Sapienza – can be cold and frankly dull. But Columbus locates warmth in the landscape, even within the all-glass walls of a local bank. Designed in 1954 by Eero Saarinen, the Irwin Union Bank is a particular favourite of Casey’s. In response, Jin challenges Casey to elucidate her emotional connection to the building. It’s here that a non-diegetic score drowns out the dialogue, and we witness the gesticulations of a woman sincerely moved by architecture.

“The challenge is to connect that to the narrative so that it’s not like a museum piece,” Kogonada says. “The filmmakers that have most connected me to a sense of space – Ozu is a real master of this – make me care about the space, because I care about those characters. So when the film ends, I find myself missing those spaces. With Taiwanese directors like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the interior and external space become a part of their language, and something they value in and of itself.”

In supporting roles, there’s indie royalty like Parker Posey as an assistant to Jin’s father, and Rory Culkin as Gabriel, a library lurker who spurs Casey’s advances. In a Linklater-esque rant, Gabriel defends video games as an art form. How can they be for people with a short attention span, Culkin’s character argues, when players are glued to the screen for hours? Gabriel adds that it’s the fault of bookish people who prioritise words on a page as being worthier of attention. In a way, Columbus, too, asks us to explore other examples of art that lurk in our everyday lives.

At least, that’s how Kogonada and Cho felt when they revisited Columbus for a screening. “It was as if we built a set and they never took it down,” Kogonada laughs. “Everything was right where we’d left it. Walking through town was like walking through the memories of us making the movie.” At one point, a car pulled over and the driver quoted a very relevant line of dialogue at Cho. “She stopped me and John where we shot that particular scene. It was very surreal.”

As for what’s next, Kogonada has two scripts ready to go. Right now, he’s deciding which one he’ll shoot in early 2019. He’s reluctant to give away too much. But I’m curious about where he sits on the core debate of Columbus. “Architecture has the power to heal,” Jin deadpans, adding, “That’s a lie architects tell themselves.” But Casey’s genuine passion for Columbus, as well as Polshek’s bridge-shaped hospital, suggest otherwise.

“Polshek is one of those architects who really believes in architecture and the form of it,” Kogonada explains. “Casey is so impacted by architecture, not just on an intellectual, cerebral level, but it’s really affecting her life. The hospital is a building that has deteriorated a little bit, and I knew Casey would love it. I know my own personal life has been impacted by art, and cinema in particular, and it’s really moved me in deep and existential ways, not unlike Casey.

“But when you get older, you lose some of that belief, because you know how things are made, or you have a different critical approach. Can art heal us? People who are invested in art want to believe in it, because we spend a lot of time and energy in these things that we make. Either they’re just a distraction and a luxury, and we have to deal with that, or they can matter and do matter. I don’t have a definitive answer. But as I talk to you, I feel myself believing it, because I want it to matter. I want these things that we do to matter.”

Columbus is out now in UK cinemas