Monday, September 18, 2017

Columbus (the movie)

It has taken a while for me to formulate an opinion on Kagonada's 2017 film Columbus. After looking at Kagonada's other work, I think that I understand a little bit more about him as a director, and can therefore be more generous in my assessment of this film than I was while watching it.

Ultimately I think that Columbus is a more a film about photographing architecture than it is about architecture, and more a film at looking at relationships from the outside than it is a film about getting to understand characters.

The characters themselves are enigmas (and I hope I am not spoiling anything for anyone by describing them superficially, which is pretty much all we get in the movie).

Casey is a bright young woman (we don't know how young) who has an unusual attachment to the buildings in her home town in Indiana. She works in the public library (which has a Henry Moore sculpture in front of it) and doesn't want to leave town to go to college because she feels the need to take care of her mother (for reasons I will not disclose here).

Professor Jae Yong Lee is an architecture scholar who comes to Columbus to give a lecture and falls ill (that's literally all he does in the film).

Jin is Jae Yong Lee's son, who flies in from Korea to be with his father. He is older than Casey, but we don't really know how much older. John Cho, who is 45 but could easily pass for 30, keeps his age a mystery. Casey and Jin develop a friendship, which provides most of the film's substance.

Eleanor comes to Columbus with the professor. She is American, speaks Korean fluently, and calls Jae Yong Lee "professor," but it is not clear what the extent of their relationship is. Over a glass of wine Eleanor tells Jin how much she owes to his father. Her relationship with Jin is also not clear, though and they do eventually reveal that they had some kind of intimacy in their past.

Casey's mother is named Maria (I missed her name in the film, but found it in the cast list). She has the same coloring, haircut, voice type, and build as Eleanor, and is probably around the same age--whatever that might be. She is a woman of mystery who apparently can't cook, can't drive, and can't tell her daughter the truth about where she is much of the time. In the beginning of the movie she is often shot from the side or the back in a way that obscures her facial features. I have a feeling that we are supposed to confuse Maria with Eleanor.

There are architectural features that act almost like characters, and there are shots upon shots of doorways and hallways that seem to jump from one interior location to another. The shots are set up to be asymmetrical, yet balanced, and there is dialogue that lets us know that asymmetry and balance are important to modern architecture. The photography is beautiful.

Not everything in this compendium of architecture in Columbus, Indiana makes it into the film, and some buildings are featured more than others. The film got me thinking about architecture (and about visiting Columbus, Indiana one of these days), which is, I suppose, what Kagonada would like it to do.

It occurs to me that architecture is at once the most personal and the most impersonal of the arts. Architects design structures that provide shelter and safety, and they design interior spaces that determine personal boundaries and allow for shared experiences. When we are inside well-designed buildings and look out we feel a sense of connection with the outdoors, and when we look at buildings from the outside, we see them as sculptures that punctuate and enhance the natural landscape. We imagine what they might be like on the inside, but we cannot understand the real character of a building unless we are inside it. Even if we are watching it on film.

Watching this movie is, for me, like looking at the characters from the outside. We get small "windows," here and there, but even during periods of personal and revealing dialogue, I feel like the characters are about as comprehensible as the buildings they enter and exit. I like to think that this the director's intention.

There is one scene where Casey is parked outside her high school at night. She is dancing wildly to music that is playing on her car sound system. Jin is sleeping in the passenger seat of the car, and the headlights of the car are shining on her. She could be dancing as a reaction to what happened in previous scenes of the film, or she could just be dancing about architecture.

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