“Columbus flies through our metrics on the steam of its fully-realized character development.”
Title: Columbus (2017)
Director: Kogonada 👨🏻🇰🇷🇺🇸
Writer: Kogonada 👨🏻🇰🇷🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Kogonada’s Columbus is a hot, summer’s day. It can subsume you, if you surrender to its heat and find beauty in the sun spots behind your eyelids. Or it can exhaust you, making you lethargic and soupy as you seek out more comfortable surroundings.
For those who have the latter reaction to Kogonada’s debut film, no worries; it isn’t for everyone. Columbus requires its viewers to put in a little legwork. Visual cues, body language, and long pauses drive the narrative just as much as dialogue and events do, if not more. But if you do pay attention—following the breadcrumbs and reveling in its meditative pace and deliberate mindfulness—this film will enrapture you.
Many can explain why this film is making such a splash, garnering an impressive 98% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this review. Geoff Berkshire writes for Variety that “The relationships between each of the characters are imbued with warmth and humanity,” while Dante Ciampaglia notes that “The film luxuriates on rooms and buildings and creates heightened sensory experiences, especially in the soundscape.” Sheila O’Malley concludes in her review for RogerEbert.com that she “hasn’t been able to get Columbus out of [her] mind,” and I have to echo her sentiment.
Among several emotional entry points into this film, what resonates with me personally is the beautiful, quivering tension created by layers upon layers of contrasts. For example, Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American based in Seoul somehow finds a deep connection with the much younger Midwest native, Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson).
Visually, the formal precision and perfect balance of every frame contrasts with the messy, complicated inner lives of the characters in the film.
All the while, strange, modernist formations descend upon the leafy suburban idylls of Columbus, lending the buildings an otherworldly, almost alien presence as they watch over the city’s inhabitants.
The only flaw I can find in Columbus is brief lapses into navel-gazing. Do we really need a three-part deliberation of attention span vs. interest? And what can we do but groan at the explanation of the merits of subtlety over flash? Kogonada’s mastery of saying so much through reticence would have been well applied to the few, but distracting incursions into self-indulgence sprinkled throughout the film.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 38% of creative decision-makers were female
The easy inclusion of multilayered women is so natural as to be almost invisible. Casey and her mother, played by Michelle Forbes, are not just a daughter and mother—they’re caretaker and burden, young and old, strong and weak. Eleanor (Parker Posey), another primary character, is perfectly rounded as well. She’s put-together and professional but reveals cracks in her polished demeanor when dealing with the ailment of her mentor, Jin’s father. She can be tough when she needs to, but can also let loose with a little wine and make silly jokes with the best of them.
Not only are the main female characters imminently complex, women exist all over the city in a variety of roles. Their quiet presences can be found as cleaners, teenagers at a bar, employees at the library, or workers in a factory. By humanizing women through various ages, occupations, and income levels, Columbus easily passes with a full score on Gender.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 15% of creative decision-makers were POC
Similar to its approach to Gender, Columbus flies through this category on the steam of its fully-realized character development. John Cho is pitch perfect as Jin, a complex character of two worlds who has embraced—or at least acknowledged—his dichotomy by moving to Seoul and working as a translator.
Both Casey and Jin transform before our eyes as the film unfolds, through not just plot devices but visual and aural cues as well. For example, Jin starts off with initial strangeness—a Korean-American donning a slick suit, wheeling his luggage into a kitschy, Victorian bed and breakfast full of bright colors that gaudily contrast Jin’s sober, monochromatic clothes. His face is shrouded in his first two scenes, seen only obliquely or through dark shadows, and his voice is first introduced to the audience through a foreign language, unsubtitled as he speaks to his editor on the phone in Korean. But over time, Jin begins to fit better into his surroundings, dressing more casually as he meets Casey and they unearth their unlikely bond. By the end of the film, Kogonada underscores Jin’s personal transformation by dressing him in a simple t-shirt and trousers, barefoot and curled into a chair. This lingering frame is awash in harmonious colors, pale blues and warm clay reds that complement Jin’s expression of peace as he slumbers in childlike, fetal repose.
This virtuosic character development, paired with the fact of an Asian male who is sexualized with potential romances, would already be enough to warrant this category a full score. Yet Columbus pads its inclusiveness with background characters of color, punching above its weight through multiple Latinx neighbors and a black tour guide. Considering the city’s demographics, which were 86% white, 5% Hispanic, 5% Asian, 2% black, and 2% other in 2016, Columbus showcases a realistically diverse setting, laudable considering its modest cast size which could have easily veered all-white.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.92/5
This stripped down, meditative film is not going to be to the taste of everyone, appealing more to aesthetes and cinephiles than those coming home after a long day of work who just want some background noise on the telly. But if you give the reins to Kogonada and exert a little effort yourself, Columbus will give you back ten times what you put into it.