“Columbus” might be the quietest drama of 2017. It could also turn out to be one of the best.
It’s the type of intimate, contemplative film that is a rarity. Anchored by two stunning performances from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, and beautifully directed and written by newcomer Kogonada, “Columbus” is a breath of fresh autumn air after a stale summer.
Director Kogonada was born in Korea but raised in the United States, providing him with deep insight into the feelings of Jin, played by Cho (“Star Trek,” “Harold and Kumar”). Like Kogonada, he was born in Korea but grew up in America.
Cho plays Jin, a somewhat somber individual who works as a literature translator in Korea. After his world-famous architect father falls into a coma, he must journey to the hospital in Columbus, Indiana. (Nope, not Columbus, Ohio.)
The location is quite relevant. Columbus is a small city noted for its architecture, and many of these striking buildings are on display in the film. Lovingly photographed, these stunning examples of modern architecture provide a unique visual accompaniment.
They also help link the film’s main characters. In addition to Jin, there is Casey, played by “Edge of Seventeen” and “Split” breakout Richardson. Her performance is utterly believable and effortlessly charming. It’s easy to identify with this recent high school grad, one with a passion for architecture.
The buildings of her hometown are deeply important to Casey. She has ranked them, studied them and pondered a career as an architect because of them. However, Casey is as immobile as these structures. Saddled with caring for her recovering addict mother, she is unable to move forward in her life.
The same could be said of Jin. He is quite literally waiting — for his father to die, or recover or something else. As he asks late in the film, “How long do I stay here and just wait?”
This mutual feeling of going nowhere unites Jin and Casey. As “Columbus” moves along, both characters realize that the time has come to make tough decisions.
Much of the film involves sitting, chatting quietly and thinking. These scenes are handled with such care and performed with such startling intimacy, that they feel genuinely thrilling. There’s a sense of being present in “real world” conversations, not dialogue crafted to move the plot along.
Does this all mean that “Columbus” qualifies as slow? Well, yes. There are moments held a bit too long, mainly those involving Casey and her mother. But these are few and far between.
The supporting performances are fine if unmemorable, save the always welcome Parker Posey as a colleague of Jin’s father. It is undeniable that the film works best when Cho and Richardson are together. What is especially satisfying about many of those scenes is that they occur in front of or inside the architectural landmarks of Columbus, Indiana. Jin and Casey do not take the beauty of these building for granted. Neither does the film’s director.
“Columbus” is the debut from Kogonada, and it marks him as a filmmaker to watch closely. He’s created a drama that will hold great appeal to architecture buffs, those interested in the presentation of Asian Americans onscreen, and, well, anyone who can appreciate an involving character study of two young people waiting for the rest of their lives to begin.
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson and Parker Posey star in tale of a Korean-born man who finds himself stuck in Columbus, Indiana, where his architect father is in a coma. 104 minutes. Not rated, but equivalent to PG-13 for adult situations, language, and brief nudity.