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      Columbus Review

      Columbus poster

      Columbus

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      With its calm, careful attention to architectural detail and a fascination with the spaces between and around its characters, "Columbus" is a lovely feature debut from the writer-director who goes by the name Kogonada, starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in two of the year's subtlest and truest performances.

      The film's title refers to the Indiana city (population just under 47,000, and the birthplace of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence) boasting a considerable array of buildings, ranging from a bank branch to a house of worship, designed by a gallery of major architects including I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese and many others. Kogonada luxuriates in the surroundings created by these masters of the built environment. But "Columbus" transcends the realm of a conventional architectural tour. In other words, the people on screen matter, too.

      Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight" trilogy exerts a strong influence here. In his work as a video essayist, Kogonada has paid tribute to Linklater. (Much of his richly provocative work can be found on his website.) As in "Before Sunrise," two strangers meet by chance, though in "Columbus" their respective stories are well underway before the meeting takes place.

      Cho plays Jin, the translator son of a renowned architect. In the opening scene, in which the key moment remains just off-camera, the architect collapses and soon falls into a coma. His son arrives from Seoul with an uncertain timeline and a conflicted, privately anguished sense of what to wish for regarding his estranged father's recovery.

      Meantime we're introduced to Casey (Richardson), a recent high school graduate and Columbus resident who works in a local library. (Rory Culkin plays her passive-aggressively smitten coworker.) Short for Cassandra, Casey has foregone any collegiate or travel plans in her role as unofficial caretaker for her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes).

      Casey's a champion and an untrained but highly perceptive expert regarding the local architecture. When she meets Jin, the groundwork is laid in a shrewdly sustained walk-and-talk exchange with one character on one side of a fence, and the other on the other. "Columbus" charts these intersecting lines, also known as characters, in a series of conversations, precise but flowing, in the Linklater vein. Visually, the rigor of the compositions pays homage to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, as if Ozu had somehow turned up in central Indiana.

      As Jin puzzles through his relationship with his father; Casey, similarly, must sort out her obligation to her mother. Parker Posey slips artfully into the minimalist tone of the film, as the ailing architect's longtime associate (an early crush of Jin's, we learn). Jin is skeptical, even disdainful, of his father's lifelong devotion to his work. "That architecture has the power to heal -- that's the fantasy architects like to tell themselves," he says to Casey. His words, however, are questioned by nearly every frame of "Columbus."

      The movie is beautiful without wasting its time on cliched beauty. Kogonada, who edited as well as wrote and directed, collaborates intuitively with cinematographer Elisha Christian, who's as good with faces as he is with sharp modernist edges etched in concrete.

      Above all, Cho and Richardson are wonderful. Kogonada acknowledges their characters' mutual attraction, as well as their considerable age difference, while steering the somewhat elliptical narrative away from predictable story beats. Both leading performances revel in the in-between moments of stillness, when a character says one thing (Casey arguing her reasons for staying in Columbus, for example) while suggesting another non-verbally (Richardson's a fantastically expressive performer, best when doing very little). Cho's an underplayer by temperament, but he has the unique skill of judging each pause a little differently, depending on the scene's requirements. Jin is a tough nut, judgmental and self-critical, but Cho makes him interesting.

      Here and there, the filmmaker cuts out the natural sound in a dialogue scene, letting the audience fill in the blanks. There are moments in "Columbus" when Kogonada's transitional shots of various locations risk reiteration (the montage near the end, for example). But few contemporary American films operate on this level of aesthetic precision. In a first feature, yet. The two big things in Columbus, Casey wryly informs Jin, are "meth and modernism." The two big things in "Columbus," even within the rigorous, expressive aesthetic maintained by Kogonada, are Cho and Richardson, whose slow-building relationship is defined, in ways both obvious and mysterious, by the buildings all around them.

      No MPAA rating.

      Running time: 1:40

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