It sounds hyperbolic to say that we have more, better access to story-telling avenues than ever before, but it’s also true. Sure, you have your time-tested options: hard copy books, network television, and movies shown in theaters. But advancing technology has made audiobooks more affordable than ever before, and ebooks are accessible with the “one-click” of a button on Amazon or Comixology. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a musical album that comes complete with a visual component, and Hamilton is a stage production that many people will experience through the soundtrack before – or instead of – seeing it live. And those are just a few examples.
Given the many different ways we have to tell a story, we often see the same one bounce from page to screen to stage, or through a pair of wireless headphones, and sometimes back again. It’s harder and harder to imagine a story than can only be effectively told through one medium, but Columbus is a perfect example. Writer/director Kogonada relies so heavily on the foundational tenets of movie-making in his exceptional debut feature that if you tried to reconstruct it anywhere else – in a book, on television, on stage – Columbus would disintegrate.
Ironically, the plot seems like it could have come from literary fiction. John Cho plays a man named Jin, who is called away from his publishing job in Seoul to attend to his father, a world-renowned architect who’s collapsed and fallen into a coma while preparing a guest-lecture in Columbus, Indiana. Surprisingly, Columbus is something of a hidden gem of modern architecture, and while there, Jin meets a young women fascinated by architecture (Haley Lu Richardson), but who would rather stay in the small city/large town and keep on eye on her recovering-addict mother, than leave Columbus to study it.
This seems like the kind of story that could inspire long narrative prose, probably told in a slightly pretentious third person limited point of view, National Book Award-style, right? But the architecture of Columbus, where the film was shot, is essential to the story. It’s important to the dialogue, but seeing the Irwin Union Bank Building and the Columbus City Hall also frame the themes in ways that couldn’t be captured without a visual element. In one key scene, Jin and Richardson’s Casey discuss the importance of glass in the design of buildings as we watch a custodial staff clean the building late at night. All that glass leads to a lot of transparency that the architects likely didn’t foresee.
Columbus would never have fit on television either. As slow as the pace is – and it is, which will likely turn off viewers who are used to a more plot-driven movie, especially in the summer – Kogonada’s script feels like a snapshot of the larger lives of the characters. Over the course of the movie, you slowly get minor insights into who Jin and Casey are and what drives them, without earth-shattering twists. It’s what makes the story compelling, and also what makes it fit the 100-minute style of the movie so well.
Given the dependence on character, dialogue, and acting, you might think Columbus could be a good fit for the stage. But only if you haven’t seen it. From the first minutes of the film, you can tell that it’s shot very, very intentionally. Kogonada is thinking more about what his camera is doing than maybe anything else in this film. Sometimes the camera moves with the characters, sometimes it sits while the characters move in and out of the frame. Sometimes you see the characters who are speaking, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes Kogonada films in a certain way just because he can: there’s a fairly intense scene that’s captured by filming a mirror reflecting the characters involved, for example. What it boils down to is a style that creates an odd – but unquestionably intentional – detachment, given how the film traffics almost entirely in personal relationships. As a result, the stage would be far too intimate for Columbus.
And so, Columbus has to be a movie. Kogonada uses every tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox to put it together, and he does an exceptional job. At times, it felt a little over the top – I found the scene in the mirror distracting, for example – but Columbus is a good reminder of what makes film unique, and it’s an example of what can happen when someone pushes the medium to its fullest potential.