Written and directed by: kogonada
Invoking the recent memories of Paterson and Manchester by the Sea, Columbus gives viewers another shot at watching a melancholy, slow-realist film named after its location. Unlike the others, Columbus struck me as a bit deceiving. One could not go into Manchester by the Sea expecting Manchester, England—the small, New England location is readily apparent. I’m not sure the same can be said of Columbus, a film that may not even explicitly mention its set in Columbus, Indiana (the small birthplace of Mike Pence) rather than Columbus, the capital of Ohio and a city of 800 000 people.
Why do I mention this deception? Why is my mistake (if it is just my mistake) relevant to reviewing a film? Because watching Columbus as if it is in fact about the bigger city, gives the title greater meaning.
In an early scene, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) a sophomore-aged young woman tells a friend at college in LA that she has no inclination to leave Columbus. At this moment, it seems Casey has an unusual, be not unreasonable attachment to her not-New York-LA-or-Chicago-glamorous city. As the film progresses, we see some of Columbus, exposed through the lens of Casey’s interest in architecture. What we see, however, is an odd collection. Each of Casey’s favorite buildings are isolated. Often the camera fails to even depict the whole building, showing nothing but a couple of glass panels. Again, if the viewer approaches this scene with the assumption that the film is about Columbus, Ohio, they will get the impression that Casey’s passion for her city is deeply idiosyncratic and tied to personal experience. By contrast, if the viewer knows the film is set in Columbus, Indiana, the choice of what is shown feels far less striking: Casey, in that context, is simply working with what she has.
As the film develops, we come to understand Casey’s pain and why she feels confined to Columbus. She befriends Jin (John Cho), a Korean-English translator who is similarly confined to Columbus due a pain of his own, one not dissimilar to Casey’s. While I cannot say more about their respective struggles and the dynamic of their relationship without spoiling the film’s relatively simple plot, I can again comment on the significance of being mistaken about their location. Were the film set in big-city Columbus, Casey and Jin could be said to be making their big home small as a result of their pain. Columbus to them is just a library, a university and a hospital, all seen in isolation, rather than as part of an urban cityscape. This is their Columbus because these are the locations they escape to, the locations that shape their conversations, and the locations that define their own sense of the city. Columbus Indiana, by contrast, is just a town: just a place to be a stuck: a place that probably can be defined by individual building in isolation. If one understands the film as set in the latter Columbus, one learns a lot less about Casey (being confined too a town vs. being so confined that a big city feels like a town), and even less about Jin (as Columbus is only a temporary home for him, making his confinement to the actual small town feel relatively insignificant).
Again, perhaps I was not supposed to make a mistake about the film’s location. If after all, the film is more interesting if its interpreted as making Columbus Ohio feel like a small town, rather than simply being set in a small town, why wouldn’t the writer just have set it in Columbus, Ohio? Then again, it is truly peculiar that the film is named after a large, American capital city, yet is not set there, nor does the film’s dialogue mention that it is not set there.
The film ends with shots of various, often uninspiring locations in Columbus, Indiana. It is at this final moment, that interestingly it doesn’t matter where on believes the film is set. Either way, the film honors Casey’s memories of her home: be it her confined home on the outskirts of a metropolis, or her home in a small, unexciting town.