Written & Directed by Kogonada
Finnish architect Eero Saarinen designed the Irwin Union Bank, and it was built in Columbus, Indiana in 1954. Before this, the design of banks was centered around making them impenetrable fortresses, a visual assurance to the depositor that their money was safe. The Irwin Union Bank is striking in its fluid wall of glass, revealing the interiors of the building. This defiant gesture exudes confidence that the bank does not have to hide behind walls of brick and mortar. The building is surrounded by trees helping to pull the customer out of the harsh urban landscape and into a more natural, pastoral space. Saarinen didn’t want to impose a bank upon the community; he wanted to make something that felt like it had always been a part of their lives.
An aged man collapses while touring the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana and his son Jin flies in from South Korea to help attend to his father. Jin meets Casey, a young woman a year out of high school who works at a nearby library. The two quickly develop a friendship and spend time exploring the gorgeous architecture in Columbus. Casey eventually reveals that she feels responsible for taking care of her recovering addict mother, and this is what hinders her from pursuing her passion, architecture. Jin, whose father is a famous professor in that field, struggles with the expectations his culture puts on him to care for his father when he knows the man would shirk at the cultural obligations. These two people talk and get to know each other, moving towards crucial moments in their lives where each will make decisions that shapes whom they are moving forward.
Columbus is a gorgeous and beautiful film. The audience is immediately awestruck by the cinematography using the elegant design of buildings to accentuate shots. Numerous frames could be hung on a wall, magnificent wide shots, our characters dwarfed by a modern monolith. The Irwin Union Bank and Miller House are used for scenes, as well as I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and its accompanying sculpture “Large Arch” by Henry Moore. Director Kodonaga is a lover of architecture and design and allows that love to flow forth on the screen.
The highlight of the whole film is the performance given by Haley Lu Richardson as Casey. She delivers a very organic and charming portrayal of a young woman at the crossroads of her life. There is no melodrama in her choices; she feels like a real person. There’s a beautiful exchange between her and Jin over a question he asks about her mother. This tiny piece of the movie comes off as so effortless and true to life. I’d only ever seen Richardson in a supporting role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, and it is clear that her talents were wasted in that picture. This is one of those standout roles where you realize that we’re seeing a mere glimpse of the potential an actor has and will deliver on in the future.
Columbus is a very symmetrical film with its two lead characters paralleling each other from the start and then swapping situations by the end. Both Jin and Casey are struggling with their obligations to parents, with Jin saying is comfortable not being there for his father and Casey unable to imagine not protecting her mother. One is coming back to a place they don’t want to be, and the other is trying to figure out if they should move on to somewhere else. There’s a romantic attraction between Jin and Casey, but neither the characters nor the filmmaker sees that as interesting territory to explore. This is much more delicate business than some maudlin love story between two people. This is a movie that is melancholy without being sad, being honest with its audience about the fear that comes with making the first steps of your life.