If you ask someone to name the architectural centers of the United States, they’ll probably respond with Washington, D.C., or some other signature metropolis like Chicago. Surprisingly, thanks to the vision of a local leader, the small Midwestern town of Columbus, Ind., tops many lists as an architectural icon. Scattered throughout Columbus are the Modernist works of Eero Saarinen — designer of the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the University’s School of Music — as well as other significant architects.
First-time writer-director Kogonada features these buildings in his recent film, “Columbus” — a breathtaking arthouse drama that follows the intertwining lives of Jin (John Cho, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”), Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, “The Edge of Seventeen”) and the town of Columbus itself. Eero Saarinen’s asymmetrical church, I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and several design treasures get their moment in the spotlight. Cinematographer Elisha Christian ("Everything Sucks!") incorporates this striking architecture in her takes, letting monumental features like Saarinen’s 192-foot spire on the North Christian Church pop from the background.
When Jin’s estranged father, a renowned architectural historian, falls into a sudden coma, Jin finds himself stuck in suburban Indiana. Korean family values trap him in a state of purgatory — drifting between the hospital, his father’s inn room and conversations with Casey, a young girl with a wise mind. Casey acts as Jin’s tour guide, taking him to her favorite architectural haunts. Against the backdrop of “Columbus”’s stunning landscape, the two form a friendship and attempt to answer the difficult question: What do we owe our parents?
Kogonada aids this inquisition with the use of mirrors to observe their interactions with the world. Many of the buildings Casey showcases to Jin feature glass as the main medium, allowing the camera to capture intimate moments in reflections. When Jin reminisces about his relationship with his father, he is only shown through the inn’s ornate mirror. Similarly, when Casey speaks of the duty she feels to her mother, she appears in the car rearview mirror. At one point, Kogonada treats a window as a two-way mirror, placing the audience on the other side of the glass as Casey silently explains why a particular building moves her so much.
The bond Casey feels with her mother strongly contrasts that of Jin and his father. Casey finds nothing more fulfilling than giving back to a parent — a sacrifice Jin struggles to reconcile with. In fact, Casey opted out of college to remain in Indiana and care for her mother, a former addict. Kogonada uses the polarity of their opinions to further weave the concept of mirrors into the film. The two characters change in ways that are reflections of one another: As Jin resolves to stay by his father’s bedside, Casey finds the strength to leave her mother’s home.
In addition, one of the final scenes of the film itself is a mirror of the first. Set in Saarinen's Miller House that pulsates with natural light, a sequence of events plays out in a poignantly similar fashion. “Columbus” opens on Eleanor (Parker Posey, “Dazed and Confused”) running through the Miller House to find her boss, Jin’s father. She finds him contemplating the manicured yard, surrounded by an expanse of green trees. When this excerpt repeats, it is Casey looking for Jin, eventually finding him in the exact same place his father stood. Through these reflected scenes, Kogonada expresses the complex nature of parent-child relationships, a timeless issue that surpasses cultural and generational differences.
Like a cheeky hint of what to pay attention to, a short film by Kogonada precedes the feature set to the words of Sylvia Plath’s iconic poem, “Mirror.” A series of movie clips show women of various ages interacting with mirrors, displaying the meditative and captivating power of architecture. “Columbus” carries this theme throughout in its contemplative pacing and cinematography, providing insight to the answer of what we owe our parents. Although Kogonada ultimately leaves this question unanswered, he suggests there are revelations to be found through examining these two characters closely — as if looking in a mirror.