Blog Directory CineVerse: A movie where style and substance mesh

A movie where style and substance mesh

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Columbus, a 2017 feature film by then-first-time director Kogonada, would on the surface appear to be a movie that explores the man-made magic and artistry of architecture and the way buildings can inspire us or make us think differently about the world. But at its core, Columbus is actually more of a film about emotional architecture, which our CineVerse group discovered last week upon further examination of this distinctive and thought-provoking picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Our collective thoughts on Columbus are summarized below.

What did you find unexpected, surprising, offbeat, or curious about Columbus?

  • This is a very different approach for a coming-of-age/relationship film. Casey and Jin seem attracted to each other, but they refrain from physically expressing any mutual interest and keep things on a platonic level. Meanwhile, the supporting characters Gabriel and Eleanor serve as possible love interests, but Jin’s longing for the latter and Gabriel’s crush on Casey remain unrequited. The movie sidesteps predictable and formulaic narrative approaches, including plot twists, sex scenes, melodramatic subplots, and speechifying.
  • This film forces us to pay attention to the compositions – the way the characters inhabit the frame and are juxtaposed to the structures around them. Despite being static creations, these architectural works offer an interesting emotional backdrop to the characters we care about.
  • The filmmakers often use long-unbroken shots and let the actors and their dialogue keep our interest as opposed to frequent cutting and reframing of various shots.
  • Often, either the physical architecture around or behind the characters in the frame appears symmetrical while the human beings are asymmetrically placed in the composition, or two characters are symmetrically aligned to balance the shot while an object like a building off in the distance is not symmetrically balanced (recall the shot where the two are standing outside the car and resting on opposite sides of the car’s roof looking at each other).

Major themes

  • Emotional architecture, or the symmetry and asymmetry between human beings as well as the objects they inhabit. The film’s characters frequently discuss architecture, and we see how many buildings as well as compositions in this movie are symmetrically framed and in balance, yet one or more objects within the frame tend to skew that balance.
    • Casey and Jin are similar in some ways but very different in others. They both are being held back in some way by a parent who has failed them, they are both intellectuals, and they each admire modern architecture. Yet there is a major age gap, they are ethnically and physically different, and Casey is relatively warm and compassionate while Jin is often cold and reserved.
    • Casey remarks of one building: “It’s asymmetrical, but it’s also still balanced.”
    • Slant Magazine critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Kogonada offers, to use a phrase coined by Casey’s co-worker, a “critique of a critique,” as the rapturous clarity of his own images is the very source of his interrogation. In the context of this film, symmetry can mean a balance of life and art or refer to order that’s imposed on life, draining it of vitality. Meanwhile, asymmetry can evoke the wonderful chaos of life, or connote a lack of balance, as artists and aficionados retreat definitively into their own obsessions. Balance is tricky, in other words, and these anxious riddles inform the surpassingly beautiful Columbus with probing human thorniness, as it’s an art object gripped by the possibility that art, in the right light, can insidiously launder alienation. Though life without art, for people such as Casey and Jin, is akin to life without life.”
  • Coming-of-age. This is a story about a girl’s maturation and acceptance that she has the right to decide her own destiny and follow her own artistic ambitions. Actually, both Casey and Jin assumedly realize by the end of the story that they have to love and accept their parents and move on with their lives without letting the baggage of the past hold them back.
  • Looking deeper and beyond the obvious to understand what moves us. Jin challenges Casey to stop merely describing architectural details and spitting out facts. He asks her: “Do you like this building intellectually, because of all the facts?” She responds: “No, it moves me.” This pair is demonstrating that we need to more deeply explore the motivations behind what inspires us so that we can better understand ourselves, not just inanimate objects of art.
  • Perfection versus imperfection. Many of the buildings and edifices that Casey and Jin admire appear architecturally flawless and as perfect works of art, yet we see how the human beings who create and inhabit these structures are quite imperfect.

Similar works

  • Films by Ozu Yasujiro, including Tokyo Story
  • The Before trilogy, including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight
  • The Florida Project
  • Short Term 12

Other films by Kogonada

  • After Yang
  • Pachinko
  • Various video essays for the Criterion Collection and other outlets

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