Heel steps sound the beginning of the much hyped first feature by visual artist Kogonada ( a moniker he chooses to use ). We see Parker Posey ( Eleanor) on a cell phone in front of a post-modernist building. She turns in time to see her companion in a gray suit and white fishing hat move on around the facade without her. She runs to catch up. Red umbrella, soft rain, bell tolls : lots of homage to the art film.
Later, we learn he was about to give a talk on his theory of architecture. But he never makes it. A stroke fells him. Having never seen his face, we will only see his up-turned toes, sheeted and comatose-still for the remainder of the film, so named after the Indiana city known for its 1950’s style, “Columbus”.
Our main characters meet by walking on opposite sides of an iron fenced walkway. Cigarettes , boredom, and curiosity play a role. Jin ( John Cho ) is the semi-estranged son of our dying eminent architect. Jin is a curiosity to the whip smart 19 year-old library worker, Cassandra. ( Haley Lu Richardson ).
“Columbus” is a situational film about place and circumstance. Two people waiting for parents, who have in some way been neglectful of them. For Jin, his Dad’s homage to place and space have left him feeling resentful. For Casey, lonesome and floundering, buildings have the power to restore. As her meth mother’s keeper, she watches her fall for weirdo boyfriends. Casey has become the worried parent, sacrificing career preparation, while she prepares meals and watches tv with mom.
So why does “Columbus” disappoint ? Something is akimbo, and well, off. We are asked to experience emotions that seem as contrived as the two paper weight images and the silhouette mouthings of words we can not hear.
At one point, Jin says, “You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.” Jin may be talking about architecture, but it is extinsically linked to his dying father. The film’s most touching scene is of Jin touching the white hat and suit so ceremoniously hung on the closet door of the Irwin Gardens Inn. He drinks and talks to the garments, like, we intuit, he has never done with his father. We know his South Korean roots and mythology herald “ghosts”, who roam if one dies alone. Intellectually, he mocks this as Asian drama, but he picks up his camera and is off to experience buildings where attention has not been overtly paid.
Casey, for her part, seems to almost stalk Jin. Her “tour guide mode” causes him to emote; “My dad would have loved you.” He draws her out by asking,” What moves you about this building?” Then, more personally: “Please tell me about this miserable time in your life?” Casey responses with “Shitheads were her ( mother’s ) addiction”. We are happy that Jin is not one of these!
I hate the scene where she drinks beer with Jin, and she dances with abandon in the car headlights. The somewhat copied “Tree of Life” ponderous sound track is equally annoying. Can a movie’s phoney, self-important tone make your teeth hurt ?
Buildings that ellicit mindful meditation, like nature does, is an artful idea, like the water flow and spray and the light illumined foliage; but what this film ironically does best is show “small town” life. The smoking, the gossip, the loyalty of friends, the “get out of town” stirrings all are rendered in library book sales, home town crushes, colleague’s lies, children fenced in backyards, and jobs.
Will Casey have a promising career as an architectural intern with Yale prof. Debra Berke? Will Jin find his father in modernism’s soul ? Will viewers find Koganada’s attempt to be so profound that they are annoyed rather than heartfelt ? Comments encouraged.