Ten years ago, I helped organize a panel in conjunction with the Asian American International Film Festival called “On Asian/American Aesthetics.” The featured speakers included playwright David Henry Hwang, fashion designer Mary Ping, architect Billie Tsien, and filmmaker Wayne Wang. The prompt—“What are Asian or Asian American aesthetics?”—provided an interesting entry point for a discussion about art, as well as identity and race. But in many ways, the question also felt impossible to answer and seemed almost facetiously posed, because first one had to unpack what is considered Asian and what is considered Asian American. And were we primarily talking about an East Asian aesthetic, as reflected by the ethnicities of the panelists?
Video essayist turned narrative filmmaker Kogonada offers a surprisingly elegant response to this question in his debut feature. Visually arresting and replete with contemplative moments, Columbus spotlights the eponymous Indiana town, notable for being the birthplace of Mike Pence and an unexpected haven for modernist architecture. Deborah Berke, I.M. Pei, and Eero Saarinen have all left their mark there. The Korean-born and Midwest-grown director uses this spectacular backdrop to cultivate the fateful friendship forged by circumstance and isolation between a small-town girl and a transient outsider that’s at the heart of the movie.
Aesthetics play a central role in their relationship, as the younger Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the older Jin (John Cho) initially bond over a fascination with the town’s unique landscape. Having foregone college, Casey doesn’t yet have the formal knowledge to fully express the reason why certain buildings affect her. When Jin asks why she likes Saarinen’s all-glass-façade bank, she repeats the same diligently memorized facts that we overheard a tour guide say earlier in the film. Jin, on the other hand, is the son of a famous architectural scholar, who was due to give a lecture before suddenly falling ill, thereby providing the impetus for Jin’s visit. Father and son’s estrangement has consequently left Jin feeling cold about his father’s work. Gazing upon the hospital walkway, which is built over a stream shaded by plants and trees, Jin easily summarizes the philosophy of James Stewart Polshek: that architecture can “heal,” but he admits that he doesn’t know whether he personally believes in it. He possesses the ability to intellectualize his father’s passion, but unlike Casey, he is not moved emotionally by it.
All this geeking out about a topic like modernism could be potentially distancing for viewers if it wasn’t for Casey’s earnestness. By embodying that youthful spirit of first love—whether it’s a love of art or literature or music—her character allows non–architecture nerds to be able to relate. For Kogonada, a grad school dropout who made the switch from academic criticism to creating film, which is the thing that he clearly loves, his intention isn’t necessarily to teach but to help us appreciate the world through Casey’s eyes. Painter Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.” Exquisitely rendered by cinematographer Elisha Christian, the otherwise quotidian structures of banks, libraries, and hospitals all become seen.
One of Kogonada’s video essays, which preceded the screening, provides an additional primer for how the audience should watch Columbus. Splicing together shots from early-20th-century Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s many works, the short highlights patterns and tropes, beginning with domestic scenes of food being prepared in the home. We later see these tableaux echoed in Kogonada’s feature, such as when Casey sits or stands in her kitchen chopping and peeling vegetables. (There’s another perfectly Ozu-esque moment at the end of the film that I won’t spoil, but you’ll know it when you see it.) Kogonada continues to pay homage to Ozu’s techniques through his frequent use of “pillow shots,” which were favored by his predecessor as a way to gently bring viewers into a new setting.
The film also plays with visibility when it comes to presenting people. The first time we see Jin’s father, his back is turned to the camera. Similarly, we’re introduced to Jin the way Casey first sees him: in the dead of night, from a distance, his face partially obscured. Even as we follow Jin from the hospital to his father’s room at the local inn where he’s staying, his figure remains shrouded in shadow. In the daylight, he frequently throws on sunglasses while sporting a dark tailored suit. I couldn’t help but interpret his inscrutability as an inherently Asian quality, or rather as something projected onto Asian people by Westerners, who often stereotype us as enigmatic and strange. Jin doesn’t necessarily struggle with his hybrid identity, but he does bristle at the external pressures (namely overworking and overly dramatic grieving) placed on him by his Korean culture. At the same time, as an Asian American character working abroad in Seoul, Jin remains very much a foreigner in the mostly white suburb. Indeed, a shopkeeper’s eyes linger just a little bit too long on this unfamiliar man wandering into his store.
Yet Jin’s aloofness has implications on a psychological level, as well. Perhaps others find him difficult to read precisely because he has deliberately blocked off a part of himself. It isn’t until Casey presses him about his father that he begins to emote, and suddenly that pain of opening up becomes achingly perceptible on his face. This disconnect between surface appearances and what lies beneath speaks to a larger question about aesthetics and humanity. For architects chasing the concept of modernity, many sought to find “modernism with a soul,” as Jin puts it. In an interview with IndieWire, Kogonada notes how modernist architecture, with its boxy shapes and empty spaces, “can feel very alienating and very cold.” In this respect, Jin’s journey to emotionally connect with Casey, and with his father, comes to represent the quest of modernism itself. Like those space-age façades that can seem out of place in the suburban sprawl of Columbus, Jin cuts a similarly peculiar yet striking figure in the town.
While not overtly acknowledged in the film, Western modernism does borrow heavily from Asian culture, which Kogonada has also previously discussed. Under his direction, this intermingling of ideas and styles coalesces in Columbus. At one point in the movie, Casey describes her cooking as “subtle,” and says that by using less salt, one can better taste the food. Such restraint can also be used to explain Kogonada’s work. While he may not have set out to define an Asian American aesthetic, his synthesis of art criticism, filmmaking, and storytelling presents us with one of the clearest examples I’ve seen to date.
Columbus is playing at IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) and other theaters nationwide.