How do you make a ravishing romance about architecture? You'll find the answer with Kogonada, the video essayist and critic whose debut feature, Columbus, is a spellbinder. An immigrant from South Korea, the director sets his first film in Columbus, Indiana, a seemingly ordinary Midwestern town except for its exceptional modernist architecture, designed by such masters as Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese. Many townsfolk pass by these wonders without noticing. This mood-piece indie, however pays close attention, providing viewers with pristine images that brim with emotions ... the sort of agony and ecstasy that his flesh-and-blood characters like to keep hidden.
Jin (John Cho) has come to Columbus from Korea to visit his father, a professor who was scheduled to deliver a lecture on architecture until he fell into a coma. His dad's partner (Parker Posey) has called the son home for one last attempt at a connection. Kogonada, who wrote the script and edited his film with an eye to the classic film symmetry of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, also follows another character. She's Casey (the sublime Haley Lu Richardson, who's the soul of the film), a lover of architecture who works at the local library and cares for her recovering-addict mother (Michelle Forbes). The caregiving, however, means that her relationship with a coworker (Rory Culkin) and her own deferred education in building design have been put on the backburner. These parallel lines meet when Casey offers to show the stranger her town. "Meth and modernism are really big here," she tells Jin, as he becomes increasingly intrigued by this girl who sees the art and the humanity in buildings.
It sounds overly arty, even a tad precious ... and during a few rare moments, it is. But for most of the running time, we're held in thrall thanks to the poet's eye its creator brings to a tale too delicate to trade in cheesy sentiment. In this short time, Jin and Casey take only baby steps toward a relationship, in a manner that recalls Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. Delicate business is being transacted in Columbus, a whisper-soft debut from Kogonada that nonetheless results in something unique and unforgettable. It's pure cinema.