With Columbus, John Cho proves something that so many have known for so long: that he’s a hell of a leading man. In a role that requires a subtle range of emotion, he owns every minutiae, from the weight of his character Jin’s culture to Jin’s complex relationship with a much younger Casey (Haley Lu Richardson).
Richardson herself continues the committed work she showed off in The Edge of Seventeen and Split. Much of writer-director Kogonada’s dialogue is exposition, which could’ve gotten bogged down were in not for Richardson selling Casey’s motivations fully. And when the exposition falls away and there’s not much dialogue left, she employs a physicality that perfectly opposes the minimalism of Cho’s performance.
Yet, the true star of the film is the writer-director. Kogonada began as a video essayist, becoming notable for his composition and editing, sensibilities that expertly transfer to his feature film. The story centers heavily around architecture, and Kogonada, along with cinematographer Elisha Christian, craft still-frames — of which Columbus is mostly composed — that feel like pieces of architecture themselves due to the arrangement of the mise-en-scene. One can truly see emotional development, even if the scenes are free of dialogue, because Kogonada is able to portray so much through where the actors stand, what items lie where or even just the stunning aesthetics of a shot.
And while so much is composed, arranged and manufactured, it’s the naturalism of the film that elevates it above simply impressive. The performances do the leg work of this, injecting what could’ve been stale with humanity. But it’s precisely that choice of Kogonada’s to have the characters speak so much, but do most of their emoting without words. There’s a pivotal scene in which Casey is asked to describe why a building is her favorite. She recites a memorized monologue before Jin stops her and asks her to really think about why. Kogonada cuts to the interior of the building — we can’t hear Casey — because it’s her face that matters, not what she says.
For that reason, Columbus may be difficult to confront. But for those who turn themselves over, it has profound rewards.