Kogonada’s Columbus is a dreamlike exploration of the lost being found, and the drifting impacts we have on each other’s lives.
When people say that Columbus is a love story, they probably don’t mean it in the way you’d expect. The film follows the budding relationship between two individuals who are thrown together by life’s endlessly unpredictable twists, but it’s not the bond between these two that makes up Columbus’ dreamlike romance – but rather the love and lessons that the pair give each other on life itself. It’s a film for those who feel lost, for those who may not know exactly what their purpose on Earth is – if we even have one at all. But Columbus assures us that that’s okay, and that the deeply personal journey we all undergo through different points of our lives is much more universal than we may have thought.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young architecture enthusiast, living with her recovering mother and working in a local library as she tries to figure out where she wants to go in her life. Jin (John Cho) is the son of a renowned scholar, rushed from Korea to Indiana after his father falls ill during their trip. The pair have one thing in common – architecture. Casey finds herself lost in Jin’s many stories of his father, who studied and practiced architecture for most of his life. As Jin shares his wisdom with young Casey, and Casey shares her vast knowledge of the town with Jin, the pair soon begin to open up to one another and realize that maybe they have more in common than they’d initially thought. Maybe their individual struggles – their family issues, troubled pasts, and crises of identity – aren’t actually individual at all.
What’s so striking and effective about Columbus is just how natural the conversations are between the two central characters. Despite much of the runtime being slowly-paced, quiet exchanges of dialogue, it’s unbelievably easy to lose yourself in their unique dynamic and complex lives, not least because of how comfortingly relatable it is. There are whole extended sequences that are just uninterrupted conversations, but Kogonada’s expert screenplay allows these to play out in a natural and engaging way that develops the characters through details as plain and simple as their mannerisms and dialect. It all comes together to form a narrative that has no real structure, but instead relies on its beautifully dreamlike atmosphere to push its message through on an emotional level, rather than focusing on an arbitrary plot that would serve only to distract from the film’s core.
The two central characters drive the entire film forward in Columbus, so it’s no surprise that leads John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson are given plenty of opportunities to shine, and both turn in astoundingly nuanced performances that may just be some of the best of that year. They explore their respective characters with so much depth, taking every opportunity to display the full depth and scope of their complex personalities. Even when they make decisions that are hard to justify, or reveal truths that aren’t easy to forgive, the characters still come across as entirely genuine and human – which makes for some of the most compelling storytelling out there.
The story works perfectly in harmony with Elisha Christian’s precise and acute cinematography, which helps both to develop the distinctly hypnotic tone of the narrative and also helps form many of the film’s complex ideas into a specific type of visual poetry through her keen eye for detail. You can see the amount of thought that goes into each individual shot, both through the intricate framing and detailed lighting/colors. Even in the moments that the story is lagging behind, or when the characters aren’t even on screen, the visual complexity behind Christian’s shots is more than enough to hold your attention and get your mind working as you try and piece together the elements of the film’s optical puzzles.
At the end of the day, Casey and Jin are nothing more than two lost souls trying to navigate their own lives with the help of the other. There are elements of romance, and there are elements of friendship, but the strongest relationship that the film conveys is the inner connection that these characters form with themselves. Columbus is a film about how life can’t be seen in black and white – some things can’t be explained with logic or intellect, but rather with a personal sense of longing or purpose. It might be painfully relatable and dishearteningly cold at times, but it’s also warm and comforting in the most surprising of ways.
Columbus is now available to watch on digital and on demand.