Thoughts on Columbus (2017)

Columbus (2017) is transcendent. It’s been compared to Paterson (2016) and Lost in Translation (2003), and it’s every bit their equal. Its themes have been fully explored in loving detail by Nathan Knapp, so here I’ll limit myself to formal observations.

In so delicate yet assured a film as this, missteps stand out. Writer-director-editor Kogonada is formalist to a fault. When the camera lingers on modernist architectural wonders, which is ninety percent of the time, this works wonders, but when the focus is on character dynamics, the editing starts to wobble. Every important dialogue scene between Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is rendered either via alternating mid-range shot-reverse shots, or indirectly through a mirror—the car mirror scene in particular is striking for its lack of visual focus, presenting us instead with a mosaic of elements equal in weight (the significance of Casey’s eye in the mirror is counterbalanced by the mirror’s minuscule size). The same seeming aversion to direct emotional display plagues the pacing of the dialogue: When they first meet, their give and take feels scripted and rehearsed, too slow to be natural, too fast to convey that uniquely non-committal rhythm of “I don’t really want to talk, but we’re both here, and there’s nothing better to do.”

And yet, the performances themselves are spellbinding. Richardson does midwestern nice like a native, and you can viscerally feel the condescension that sometimes crosses her face and mind. To this Cho brings the ingenious foil of East Asian formal politeness; whereas Casey lets every slight pass, Jin makes a point of apologizing for each faux pas. It makes him seem every inch the outsider that he is, in town and in this time of his life.

But there are two cuts that I feel were off-beat. First is the cut that closes the modernist church scene. Ending with a meditation on the idea of “modernism of the soul,” and in such vaulting environs, I wanted the camera to linger just a moment more; instead it cuts away as soon as the last line is delivered. In contrast, during their argument, when Casey retorts that Jin quit grad school, the camera cuts to Jin a beat too early, showing him as if stunned by the remark before he quickly counters with, “That’s different.” But we all know that his comeback should be an instinctive denial—after all, it’s not so different, really.

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