Movie Review: Columbus (2017)
I first saw the trailer for “Columbus” on an evening when I was agonizing over whether to spend another $300 to travel to Minneapolis 1 1/2 days ahead of schedule so I could be with my mother who was having trouble recovering in the hospital. Would that day and a half matter? Would I just be throwing money away? I felt guilty enough just being in a movie theater in Seattle, but I was still on the fence. Then the trailer to “Columbus” began with these words:
There’s this belief that if you’re not there when a family member dies, their spirit will roam aimlessly and become a ghost.
I was in Minneapolis within 24 hours.
“Columbus” reminds me a little of last year’s “Paterson.” Both are quiet, thoughtful movies about scattered characters in an unfamous American town that is still known for something: poetry for “Paterson,” modern architecture here. “Paterson” was more acclaimed but I think “Columbus” is better.
That said, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I appreciated more than loved it.
Should I stay or should I go
Both main characters are trapped in Columbus, Indiana by a parent. Jin (John Cho), is forced to travel from Seoul, South Korea to be with his famous architect father, who collapses before a lecture and never really recovers. Cassandra, or Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, a find), is a bright 19-year-old who has eschewed college to look after her working-class mother (Michelle Forbes), recently recovered from meth addiction.
Casey is clearly chafing and keeps pursuing the nearest interesting thing, and once Jin arrives that’s him. I like their first conversation, sharing cigarettes on opposite sides of a wrought-iron fence. She first hears him speaking Korean on the phone (he’s a translator, expected to work while caring for his father), and expresses surprise that he speaks English so well. Like an American, really. But he is an American—born there, raised here, now living there—and I’m glad first-time writer-director Kogonada added this bit of complexity and didn’t try to pass off the obviously American Cho as Korean. Jin even engages in a bit of PC gamesmanship like an American—giving her a hard time for assuming he didn’t speak English. I like when he immediately expresses regret over this: “You offered me a cigarette and a I give you a hard time.” I like the twinkle in his eye when he corrects her on his name: Jin with an n. I like how their conversation ends at a break in the fence, but they each stay on their own side.
What I didn’t particularly like? Them, sadly. I found her both self-satisfied and needy—an annoying combination—while he still harbors resentments toward his father at the age of .... what? 40? (Cho is 45.) Shouldn’t he be over this by now? Shouldn’t he have forgiven his father his faults and himself his choices? The fact that he’s still working through these issues made him less interesting to me.
We don’t see him working on translations much, or even at the hospital at his father's bedside. Mostly we get them in conversation, and slowly, sometimes awkwardly, truths are revealed. She talks the meth problem in Columbus, he says meth is a problem everywhere: Korea, China. Then, based on where she takes the conversation, he asks if her mother did meth. She laughs oddly at this. “Did you mother do meth?”: How funny that sounds. She’s right, it does sound funny, but he keeps asking. Eventually she owns up. That’s why she’s still in town, caring for her. But during the course of the movie her mother appears to be doing it again. Mom's got a night-shift job but not answering her phone, and Cassie discovers a friend is covering for her. (Horrible friend.) It’s never stated out loud, and Jin never realizes it, but we do. We know why Casey's acting the way she’s acting. And we know why she leaves Columbus. Because staying hasn’t helped.
Don’t let’s start
Throughout, she, and sometimes he, talk up the modernist architecture of the city, some of which I loved (Second Street Bridge), some of which I found so-so (the 1954 purposely unimposing bank building). I think my favorite is the low-level modernist city hall, built in 1981, particularly its cantilevered brick walls that extend from left and right but don’t quite meet in the center. That’s a good metaphor for politics, particularly these days, and a good metaphor for Jin and Casey. They go all that way but don’t quite ... meet. Or consummate. There’s the age difference, mostly, and the mixed feelings. Is his concern for her fatherly, big brotherly, more? I like that it remains ambiguous, probably even to him.
It's a quiet, studied film, and the ending is poignant. From the beginning he’s wanted to leave and she’s wanted to stay. So, of course, she leaves and he stays. It’s like that They Might Be Giants line: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful.” She goes but neither is free; both have work to do. His is with his father, hers is with herself.