Director Koganada’s debut film Columbus offers a look into the nuances of platonic friendships and family relationships, exploring deep and unexpected connections spurred by unlikely circumstances.
Jin (John Cho, Star Trek) flies from Korea into the city of Columbus, Indiana upon hearing that his father, a renowned architecture professor, is in a coma. Although he was born in the U.S., Jin is essentially estranged from American culture because of the time he has spent in Seoul, where he makes a living translating texts from English to Korean. Museum tour guide and design aficionado Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen) overhears Jin while he is making one of his phone calls back to his home country, and is captivated by the foreign language he speaks. This leads Casey to ask him about it, sparking an affection that overlooks their age difference; Casey is in her late teens, and Jin in his thirties.
Architecture is an overarching theme that lies at the heart of the movie, and is often the starting point for Jin and Casey’s rendezvous. Besides being the hometown of current vice president Mike Pence, Columbus, Indiana’s other claim to fame is its significant collection of public art and modernist architecture. Frames of long, symmetrical lines featured in the city’s modernistic highlights punctuate the film’s pace, often contrasting with the more humble Midwestern backdrops in their state-of-the-art grandiosity. This contrast is accentuated further by the idyllic scenery surrounding these buildings, which juxtaposes the concrete and glass in these constructions with the serenity of the city’s landscapes, in which comfortable sequences of silence are interrupted only by sounds of nature.
This disparity, between modernity and tranquility, can also be transposed into the protagonists themselves in several aspects; Jin represents the former, and Casey, the latter. “Smart phones, dumb people,” Casey affirms a few minutes before proudly showing Jin her flip-phone as if it were a badge of honor of her old-fashioned convictions. Urbanity is found in Jin’s crisp, polished look and sober demeanor, which acts as a foil to Casey’s heartwarming personality. Casey is usually donned in pastels that more adequately match the rich colors in the background. As a curious reader who works at a local library, Casey forgoes any sense of ambition in order to care for her mother, and thus remains grounded in her town even after graduating high school. However, in spite of her far-flung dreams and social pressures to strive for more, it appears that Casey does, in fact, seem to appreciate the city and the calm life she lives everyday – or at least convinces herself that she does. The homespun pleasures of her routine are often portrayed throughout the movie, usually cooking dinner with her mother and savoring food while lounging in her couch. When asked by a high school acquaintance, Casey firmly asserts that she likes Columbus, unlike many of her peers. Regardless of the truth value in that statement, it is true that she finds more beauty in her hometown than the other young adults.
Much lies beneath the misleading quietness in Columbus, and it is precisely this silence that magnifies the power of the movie’s economic dialogue. Many of the conversations between Casey and Jin revolve around the architectural masterpieces found in the city, occasionally citing names that probably won’t ring a bell to the average moviegoer. A recurring question concerns whether architecture possesses the ability to heal, for instance.
These frequent debate sessions pave the way for deeper discussions about their differing views on family values. At the surface, the moral conflict consists of Jin’ prioritizing his career over family, and Casey’s sense of duty toward her recovering addict mother over her professional aspirations. The nuances in their different perspectives build up tension between them, and result in some of the most subtly heart-wrenching parts of the movie.
Perhaps one of this movie’s greatest accomplishments is its portrayal of an age-transcending affinity that does not obviously translate into a full-fledged love affair. The relationship that develops between the two of them merely suggests rather than affirms, muddling the thin line between platonic friendship and love. Romantic speculations aside, an understated tenderness naturally flourishes between the odd couple throughout the movie, making the viewer wonder as to what is left off the screen. Thus, this overall feeling of uncertainty might be what forces us to look closer in search of explanations, many of which are left unanswered – but, fortunately, only for our delight.