Is it wrong to say someone has a short attention span if they cannot concentrate on reading a book, but spend hours at a time playing video games? Kogonada’s debut feature discusses morality, opinion, uncertainty, and most of all humanity, without ever feeling like a philosophy lecture. The film isn’t about any of these topics, it is simply about people: their actions and emotions. Two stories intertwine in a city known for its incredible architectural features; two people stuck in a sort of limbo because of those they love.
The first of these stories follows Casey, a 19 year old resident of Columbus played by the startlingly brilliant Haley Lu Richardson. Casey avoids going to college in favour of staying with her mother (Michelle Forbes), who has recently gotten over an addiction to meth. Casey’s situation mirrors Charlie’s from Lean on Pete; a young person who has been forced to grow up too fast, and take care both of themselves and others before they are mature enough to do so. Though she spends most of the film denying this, Richardson shines in the rare moments in which Casey is honest to herself – dancing wildly in a dark car park to no music, or talking passionately about architecture without resorting to her tour guide persona.
While Casey seems happy to stay in Columbus, Jin’s departure cannot come quickly enough. Jin, played by John Cho, is the son of a professor of architecture, flying in from South Korea when his father takes ill whilst visiting the city. With the professor comatose, Jin wallows, avoiding connection with his father’s girlfriend Eleanor (Parker Posey). Cho is effortlessly watchable, as powerful in silence as he is when delivering lines with a calculated precision and understated emotional complexity reminiscent of Brad Pitt at his best. There is something that immediately links Casey and Jin when they meet, perhaps a shared notion of loneliness or uncertainty. Casey proceeds to tour Jin around the modernist landmarks she knows so well, both of them trying to make sense of Jin’s father’s notebook. Kogonada’s ability to craft such realistic, layered dialogue is impressive, often recalling the effortless enjoyment and intrigue of spending a day with Jesse and Celine in the before trilogy.
It is rare that the characters’ faces are seen in full; Kogonada choosing instead to shoot the actors from behind, or to show their reflection in a mirror. The effect is paradoxically distancing and captivating, as if the characters are perpetually hiding a part of themselves. The technique is complimented wonderfully by Elisha Christian’s cinematography. There is a picturesque attention to detail that could rival a Wes Anderson film, but without the overt, gaudy qualities inherent in Anderson’s style. Each frame could be its own piece of art, but the art always utterly real, never stylised. The leads are supported fantastically by Forbes, but Posey’s harsh deliberateness electrifies scenes with deeper emotion. As Casey’s librarian co-worker Gabriel, Rory Culkin’s passion and reserve in turns are magnificent, and his chemistry with Richardson is note perfect.
The most beautiful moments of Kogonada’s film, whether they are uplifting or heart-wrenching, are the moments of pure honesty. As a comment on humanity, it feels not only natural, but subtly melancholy. If Kogonada is highlighting the relief that accompanies truth, he is also explaining that its effect is strongest when following sustained emotional unavailability, or worse, dishonesty. And what does that say about modern relationships, about friendship and love? Then again, perhaps Kogonada is merely telling us a simple story. A story filled with heart, loneliness and magic, about two people who happen to coexist, for a time, in Columbus, Indiana.
Out on DVD/Blu-ray on 19th November.
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