A brilliant, lowkey cinematic simile, drawing connections between architecture and life, symmetry and relationships. Architecture is baked into the entire film, not just the writing, as the cinematography constantly finds interesting ways to film buildings that serve as some sort of commentary on the characters and their relationships as well. The fascination and obsession Malick has with the natural world, first-time director Kogonada here seems to have with buildings, the built world.
The framing and blocking of the buildings and characters around them really is impressive, as the film keeps finding new ways to illustrate aspects of the characters through how they’re shot in relation to the buildings around them. Static wide shots with very particular and thought-out framing are the film’s bread and butter, but creative choices like playing around with character’s situation within the frame abound as well. This contributes to how delightfully the holistic the film is, as it’s mainly a two-hander covering two characters trying to bring some desired symmetry into their lives (and out of their power) when the closest they can get is just balance.
Symmetry is also central to the relationship between those two main characters (played fantastically by John Cho, filled with understated sensitivity and warmth, and Haley Lu Richardson, wisely underplaying her character’s simmering inner turmoil), as they both find commonality in how stalled they both are in their lives, in part due to unsustainable stages in their relationships with their respective parents. Disconnected, unsustainable relationships with parents tie into character’s disinterested relationships with the environments they grew up in, both the architecture of a hometown and the relationship with a parent being what one side character namechecks as a case of when “you grow up around something and it feels like nothing”. The value of everyday life is a key topic on the film’s mind.
A story that could only work so well as cinema, Columbus is a brilliant debut film from director Kogonada, and a fascinating exploration of architecture as a stand-in for life and relationships. Four and a half cigarettes, and a modernist bank.