Modernism with a Soul

The first moments of Kogonada’s debut film Columbus show an old Korean man wandering through a strikingly modern house. His assistant, a young woman, jogs behind him, yelling “Professor!” at all times so as not to lose him. The minute she stops to take a call, he collapses in the background, and the title screen flashes.


The professor’s son, Jin (a brilliant and subtle John Cho), comes to be by his side in Columbus, Indiana, where the professor was about to give a lecture. Columbus, Mike Pence’s hometown, boasts an impressive collection of modernist buildings. From Saarinen to IM Pei, this small town in Indiana proves to be a center of modernism and a lesson in a building’s ability to heal. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman and lifelong resident of Columbus, planned to attend the lecture in order to reach her goal of becoming a tour guide. She obsesses over all the facts, practicing multiple times a day. A bright young woman, she seems to be an Anti-Lady Bird, staying in her small town after high school in order to care for her mom. She works at the library and has unapologetically intellectual exchanges with her coworker.


Casey, on her break from work, is walking the perimeter of the old inn where Jin is staying. She eyes him in the courtyard and offers him a cigarette. He ends his call and comes over. They walk together, separated by a beautiful iron fence. This moment represents the film well. Each shot, meditative and symmetrical, is swelling with emotion.


Jin and Casey’s connection is immediate. She starts telling him about the church across the street. “It’s asymmetrical, yet balanced,” she says. They then walk over to a bank, where Casey starts reciting her tour guide speech. Jin stops her and laughs. Her presence feels unnatural and lacks any emotion. He interrogates her, asking why she likes the building. Does she like it as a concept, or does she actually find it beautiful?


“It also moves me,” she replies.
“Yes. Yes, tell me about that. What moves you?”


What follows is a frustratingly lovely scene. The sound stops and Casey continues to talk. This time, she looks different. Her usual precocious self has tears forming behind her eyes. Richardson’s performance is incredible. We are unable to hear her, yet we believe her for the first time. Jin does too.


As Casey starts to let go and explore the emotions behind her expertise, Jin struggles to connect to his father’s passion. Carrying his old camera, he takes pictures of buildings that strike him, hoping to pair them with the scribbled notes his father left behind.


“What about your dad? Does he believe in anything?” Casey asks as they lean against the pews of a Saarinen church.
“He believes in Modernism…modernism with a soul.”


While Jin and Casey have an intellectual connection, there is also a touch of romance between the two of them. Several flirty exchanges lighten the mood. When Casey talks about how she got into architecture, Jin says,


“God, Dad would have loved you.”
“And you don’t?”


Casey smirks and is flirty, but in a gentle way. While she is younger, Jin never talks down to her. Instead, he listens and pushes her to aspire to more. Their mutual respect is at the root of their connection and makes their relationship feel special and apart from films of a similar nature. There are also other possible love interests for the two of them. Casey flirts in a similar way with the guy she works with at the library, and Jin has a complicated past with his father’s assistant.


Objectively, this film should not work. While part of it feels Linklater-esque, the other half is a visual tribute to Japanese director Ozu. This is not Before Sunrise. Columbus is not Vienna, and Jin and Casey are not as young and argumentative as Jesse and Celine. It is a film about a man struggling to grieve, a young woman ready to start a life of her own, and all set in the modernist Columbus.


Kogonada lets the buildings drive the film. A video essayist, he has a deep understanding of how to film modernist spaces, forcing us to bask in their simplicity. He sits in front of each one for quite some time, as if it is a painting in a museum that requires extended viewing. Bridges, libraries, and fire stations come to life as they stand strong in the midst of a quiet town.


Similar to Lady Bird, this film is a complicated love letter to a hometown. Casey remarks on the way something simple can suddenly transform, saying,
“I’d probably seen it a thousand times before, but this one night, I was getting in my car and I looked up and saw it…In the middle of all the mess, suddenly a place I lived my whole life felt different. Like i’d been transported somewhere else.”

Looking up and seeing is essentially what this film is about. Each shot centers the viewer, turning into a guided meditation. Once you slip into this hour and a half long reverie, you will never look at buildings the same way and every walk around a town you love will feel a little bit more sacred.

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