It’s easy to say that Columbus is architecture porn for one good reason: it is architecture porn. Video essayist Kogonada’s feature film début frame buildings in ways that I can’t recall seeing them framed before: not only in just the right light and at just the right angle, but with just the right context. This is why it’s misleading to say that it is architecture porn: because it’s so much more than that.
Jin (John Cho) is the son of a famous professor of architecture. They are estranged and not only have they not spoken in a year but the father didn’t even let him know that he was taking a trip to Columbus, Indiana, which is a mecca of architecture. When his father collapses and lands in a coma he begrudgingly flies in from Seoul to deal with the situation.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a local librarian with a deep love for architecture who has stayed behind in the town while her friends have left for university because she feels responsible for her recovering drug addict mother.
After a chance encounter and a shared cigarette they being walking around town and through the course of the film they visit significant buildings and speak about life. Casey helps Jin come to an appreciation of his father’s life and work, and Jin helps Casey to find balance between her responsibilities at home and her own desires to do something more with her life.
In a lesser film this would be a pretty standard manic-pixie-dreamgirl situation. The melancholy Jin would get his mojo back and learn to love his father through the transformative love of the younger, quirky local girl. This isn’t that movie though. Jin and Casey’s relationship becomes loving but remains platonic. Each of them have issues with parents, and each of them helps the other work through those issues. The conversations they have are the kind you can only have with the closest of friends, alternating between being about the deepest of histories, wants, and desires and the the nothing in particular that leads to those places. Each one is beautiful and affecting.
As much as John Cho is billed as the lead actor the story is actually as much, if not more, Richardson’s. Cho brings an honesty and empathy to the role of Jin that proves once again what a travesty it is that he isn’t a much bigger star. Richardson not only holds her own with her more experienced cast mate but shines in each of their scenes. If she hasn’t been a star on the rise so far, she will be now.
It’s actually astonishing that Columbus is a directorial début. It’s perfectly framed, perfect in its tone, wonderfully acted, and one of the years best movies. Do not miss it when it comes your way.