Surges of emotion roil under placid surfaces in the new drama “Columbus” — at least in theory. Seoul-based translator Jin (John Cho) finds himself stranded in the Indiana town where his estranged father, a renowned architecture scholar on a lecture tour, lapses into a coma. Jin briefly reunites with his teenage sweetheart (Parker Posey, whose sexy, antsy energy is desperately missed for most of this sedate, cerebral picture).
He also befriends 19-year-old Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, “The Edge of Seventeen”), an architecture buff afraid to leave her hometown and thus “abandon” her fragile mother (Michelle Forbes). Brought together by filial obligation, Jin and Casey aren’t quite sure how to grapple with their dysfunctional relationships with their parents.
If “Before Sunrise” were set in a mournful Midwest, it might look something like “Columbus.” Avoidance and delay fuel most of the (in)action, and so Jin and Casey mostly walk around and talk about the stocky modernist landmarks that dot the Indiana architectural mecca. (Columbus is also the birthplace of Mike Pence, but let’s not hold that against it.)
Can architecture heal? Can modernism have a soul? Are those questions worth asking? In the Richard Linklater film, such Philosophy 101 conversations doubled as foreplay between possible lovers — a seductive game of “if you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine.” In “Columbus,” earnest discussions about various buildings give way to confessions of grief, fear, and anger. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” said someone who apparently didn’t have much faith in the worthiness of articulating what art is and how it works.
First-time writer-director Kogonada doesn’t just want his characters to expound on architects Eero Saarinen and Deborah Berke. Staring at her high school from the outside, Casey dances out the frustrations that the building has stockpiled inside her.
A minimalist film like “Columbus” depends almost entirely on the shading of the characters and the depths of the performances. By that metric, it’s a too-delicate creature, tickling and piquing instead of fully thrusting us into the realm of feelings. For instance, Jin explains to Casey in a wonderfully complicated monologue his relief that his father fell ill here instead of in Korea, where social expectations demand that he showily perform his lamentations by his not-exactly-beloved father’s deathbed.
See John Cho's latest POWER MOVE.
That scene is also the most culturally specific moment in this work by a Korean-American filmmaker (and video essayist) starring a Korean-American actor. But all I wanted from that moment was more: How did cultural or generational clashes (if any) contribute to the years-long distance between father and son? What was it like not just to grow up as the child of a famous academic, but also as part of a relatively unusual immigrant experience that actually allows for aesthetic appreciation as a profession? What were the contours of Jin’s relationship with Posey’s character, especially since Cho enjoys a lived-in chemistry with the veteran actress that he lacks around the still-green Richardson? (And under what circumstances would Jin’s father and his married ex-girlfriend from 20 years ago travel together?)
It’s possible that I’m being unfair to “Columbus,” that my frustrations stem from a personal desire to see a more conventional Asian-American narrative than the one Kogonada intends. If Asian American cinema is to grow, the genre has to take its lead from artists who pursue their own visions and styles. In the case of “Columbus,” that means plenty of shots of Cho doing the thousand-yard stare under an awning while rain pours down on both sides of him.
And yet, it’s also true that scenes like Jin’s meditation on cultural differences in mourning might well have been more poignant and impactful had we known even a little more about the father-son relationship. That’s particularly the case since Jin’s aloof dad will resonate with many Korean-American viewers.
That near-miss sensation of what might have been, had we just a few more details, haunts Casey’s character, too. Her reluctance to open up to Jin about the trauma that keeps her in Columbus rings true but also prevents her from being fleshed out. The script also saddles her with a couple of pretentious quirks, like refusing to use a smartphone, that might elicit an eye roll from the audience (if the architecture nerdiness hadn’t already accomplished that).
Rory Culkin co-stars her flirty colleague at the library where she might work forever. But libraries don’t hire anyone without a master’s degree anymore, and so she’d have to leave her hometown in order to secure a future there.
If it refuses to explore the past, “Columbus” at least knows how to stay in the present. Its best moments find Jin and Casey feeling each other out, offering an outsider’s perspective on the other’s sorrows and responsibilities and occasionally being told that they’ve overstepped their bounds. With grace and curiosity, the two strangers discover what they can be to one another. If it’s less satisfying than a straightforward romance, it’s more generous and unpredictable too.