Fiction has an inherent self-contained quality. Characters are meant to be people, with lives, interests, failings, but we only see a snapshot of their character. Sometimes it shines through in little moments, sometimes it is revealed in ways that affects the entire story. Mostly, fictional characters exist in service of a story, elements of a plot. Self-contained.
Columbus represents a different kind of story, one where the major events have already occurred. This is the aftermath, a third act where the characters are processing how these events affect them, and figuring out how to move forward with their lives.
It’s a quiet film, one where the visuals explain as much as the dialogue. There is affection in so many shots, for both the characters and the setting. What occurs here is driven by perception as much as interaction, and how that perception is shared, creating relationships through interpretation. Many of the scenes here are shot from a single, fixed viewpoint. We aren’t meant to follow the characters so much as the setting, and how the characters interact with it.
At the heart of this film are two characters, Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson). Superficially, their relationship is not unlike the leads in Lost in Translation, two people drawn together through cultural isolation. Unlike that film, though, these characters bond through relatable histories, a shared sense of loss and a common setting viewed from different perspectives.
In this way we come to know Jin and Casey, as they come to know each other, and as they come to understand themselves and their situations. To say more is to begin analysis, at the risk of spoilers, but the film is intimate and personal. It’s a rare film that allows for this kind of interaction, and at its own pace. There is a natural story arc here, and a climax, but this isn’t the kind of movie that spends two hours leading up to a single moment.
The viewer’s enjoyment depends on their enjoyment (or tolerance) for this kind of small-scale story, and their acceptance of the lead characters. To that end, Jin and Casey feel alive, and their movie feels alive because of it. There are very few supporting characters here, and they mostly exist on the fringes of the story – only Gabe (Rory Culkin) and Eleanor (Parker Posey) have influence, with Casey’s mother Maria (Michelle Forbes) also playing a role. (The presence of Parker Posey, combined with the absence of Christopher Guest, also identifies this as an independent movie.)
I realize this kind of movie is not for everyone. It requires some investment, and its pace will put off some viewers. The emotional weight is not easy to watch at times. There are many shots of buildings with no dialogue. But it’s absolutely worth the effort, for those interested in this kind of story and presentation. I watched this movie twice in theaters last year, and rented it again for the purpose of writing about it.
This may be more recommendation than review. But I hope that my willingness to write about this movie serves as support for that recommendation; I watch few movies, and feel strongly about only some of them. Columbus is that rare movie that inspires me to write. When people ask if I have a favorite movie, I usually say “I don’t know, but Mad Max: Fury Road is pretty good. And there is this other movie I like.”
This is the debut film from Kogonada, the director. He has another film in production, an adaptation of a short story; I can only hope he will have another project after that.