USA (104 mi) 2017 d: Kogonada
This is the film Jim Jarmusch was trying to make in Paterson (2016), as it’s infinitely more meditative, using conversations to explore things that matter to people, including starkly poetic imagery based entirely on the local architecture of the region, yet the biggest surprise is the complexity of the subject matter, dramatically spare, interjecting a strange combination of moods and personal thoughts that continually broaden to become universally recognized themes, where there’s more love in this one film than any ten films combined seen earlier this year. It’s an ever-expanding work that operates on so many different levels, not the least of which is a stunning visual design, making this among the more eye-appealing films seen in years. Who knew all these tiny secrets were kept hidden in the heartland of Columbus, Indiana, (birthplace of sitting Vice-President Mike Pence), a small Midwest town that is showcased like never before. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995) gave rise to massive tourist interest where a curious public wanted to see those historical bridges in their original settings, driving through various country roads to get there, while this may have a similar effect to the tourist business of Columbus, as this film gives it a unique appeal that is nothing less than eye-opening. Envisioned by a first-time director, Korean-born Kogonada, who was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Ozu when he realized he wanted to be a filmmaker himself, better known for conceiving online video essays, which includes the infamous Kubrick One-Point Perspective, many of which can be seen on Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/kogonada. In a strange twist, much of the dialogue is actually spoken too quietly, barely above a whisper, where bits and pieces may be inaudible, but viewers won’t miss anything and can easily follow the path of the storyline, which is brilliantly written, enhanced by the performances of its two stars, John Cho, more familiar as Sulu in the Star Trek(2009) movies, and Hayley Lu Richardson, a welcome surprise who resembles Jennifer Grey in DIRTY DANCING (1987), an All-American girl whose warmth and sweetness overrides her obvious talent and intellectual insight, yet her moral integrity is impeccable. The two come together almost by accident, as Cho plays Jin, the son of a famous Korean architect who is in town to give a speech on architecture, but suffers a heart attack, leaving him in a coma, with his son flying in from Seoul to be at his side, met in the hospital by his wife, none other than Parker Posey, who is something of a scholar in her own right. Richardson, on the other hand, plays Casey, a home town resident working in the library while voluntarily leading architectural tours, who was planning to attend the speech before it was abruptly cancelled, and overhears Jin in the hospital speaking about his father.
It’s surprising to discover an old-fashioned town of 46,000 is home to a staggering number of public works projects, more than 60 civic buildings designed by some of the famous names of 20th century architecture, with seven currently designated as national historic landmarks (Seven national historic landmarks in one small ... - Columbus, Indiana). First and foremost, in terms of the film, is The Inn at Irwin Gardens (irwingardens.com), a beautiful stone structure set amongst trees and gardens overlooking a vast expanse of freshly mowed green grass leading to a wall of imposing trees that can feel mesmerizing, while the ornate interior, as Jin confesses, moving into the room reserved by his father, feels like living inside a museum, where he’s afraid he’ll break something. The opulence on display greets viewers with a sign of what’s to come, as every shot is perfectly framed, where the exact precision is like a moving art exhibit, with the director integrating the neo-futuristic architectural works of Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Myron Goldsmith, Kevin Roche, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Deborah Berke, Robert Venturi, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Eliot Noyes, I.M. Pei, and Pei’s protégé James Polshek, among others (All of the architects of Columbus – a list) throughout his film, leading 20th-century figures whose works are infused with the imaginations of other masterminds, like sculptor Henry Moore, but also including interior designers and landscape architects, where the post office, newspaper offices, banks, churches, libraries, fire stations, ice-cream shop (with marble counters and a self-playing organ), city hall, courthouses, even the prison, along with other brilliantly designed structures become the strongest component of the film, where lives exist within the shadow of public art installations, whose daunting influence imposes its will over all, where few can fail to be moved by the harmonious beauty of these designs. In this way, the present meets the past with an everpresent look toward the future, exploring something fundamental about what it is to be human. Shot in just 18 days, using drawings ahead of time from Japanese illustrator Mihoko Takata who designed six of the film’s scenes, all without ever visiting Columbus, the film examines the complicated relationship each lead character has with their parents, as Jin was basically estranged from his father, never really trusting the influence of architecture, while Casey’s mother is a recovering meth addict now working in a packaging plant, believing she needs to stay at home to take care of her, as she may fall into relapse without her, even if that means foregoing her own future. Despite these differences, the two embark on a friendship, with Casey overhearing him speaking Korean on the phone, surprised to learn he speaks English. Both are intelligent and well-educated, with Casey having a longstanding interest in architecture, studying the influence it has in her home town, where its immediate effect is more personal with her, while Jin views it from afar, believing it was crammed down his throat by his father, so he’s familiar with the artists and their theories, but the emotional abyss that stands between himself and his father clouds any and all interest, so instead he’s fascinated by what draws Casey to it, as there’s an understated, near invisible force driving her passion. Throughout the film they visit various sites, commenting on what they think, offering personal revelations, where the candid conversational style resembles the spontaneity of Richard Linklater’s BEFORE TRILOGY, though it never rises to a level of romanticism or sexual interest, just a budding friendship, exploring the impact they have on each other, which seems to shift and change as they go along.
Many may think the roots of this film may be Roberto Rossellini’s divorce among the ruins film, Journey to Italy (1954), where the visualization of the camera integrates character, in particular the psychological mindset of Ingrid Bergman, with the remnants of decaying artworks scattered around Naples, mirroring her deteriorating relationship, suggesting an impermanence in human relationships, a film that may have opened the door to modernism. But a closer inspection suggests it may actually be closer to Antonioni, who specialized in creating a sense of space between characters in order to heighten the emotional distance, framing his films with an almost mathematical precision, shooting through doorways, windows, or hallways, always acutely aware of architectural lines, as if the camera was peering at the characters through the prism of history and Western civilization. Antonioni was cinema’s premiere modernist, creating profound meditations on emptiness, with isolated characters searching for meaning in the boredom of their rich and comfortable bourgeois lives, finding themselves disoriented by the changing landscape, where the weight of classicism has been replaced by sleek modernist structures with glassy exteriors, using electronic-infused sound designs to enhance alienation. This sounds like what Kogonada has in mind, also writing and editing the film, bringing to light the blind spots in his characters, exploring what’s holding them back, especially when surrounded by such massively expressive architectural works that seem to be speaking out to them, beckoning them, radically breaking from the past, exploring new ideas in design, making conceptual use of space, at times therapeutically integrated with the surrounding natural world, which impacts viewers in a symbiotic manner, calling out to and challenging their basic instincts, impacting how they feel, if only they can learn to read the signals. In this sense, Kogonada is actually building on the Antonioni legacy of existentialism, as these buildings have a fixed position, a place of permanency, offering a restorative energy, even a consoling power of healing, like spirits that speak in the night, or ghosts of the past, unnoticed, largely forgotten, like submerged memories that only come to life when we choose to think of them, as the film literally asks what it means to live in a modern world. While reaching for the profound, much of the film, rather humorously, takes place during smoking breaks, momentary pauses where people fill empty space, where near the end of the film Rory Culkin, Casey’s coworker at the library, finally confesses that he doesn’t even smoke, but just wanted to spend some time with her. It’s a heartfelt confession with underlying overtones, but it also speaks to her human value and worth, something she questions throughout the film, wondering if there is more that she could do. There is no mistaking, however, the closeness of her relationship to her mother, the polar opposite of Jin and his father, though both of their thoughts evolve over time, aided by their companionship. Jin explains what he would be expected to do if he was living in Korea, which is stand by his father’s side to the bitter end, as a son should not allow his father to die alone. But he simply doesn’t feel that way, as he can’t manufacture a closeness that doesn’t exist. Now that his father is in a coma, it doesn’t close the distance or change how he feels about him. Casey finds that view appalling and crude, almost prehistoric, where there is certainly room for growth. Shot by cinematographer Elisha Christian, this is no ordinary indie film, but is a small gem that reaches for exalted heights, a coming-of-age story that defies the typical sexual exploration and instead involves an intellectual awakening, where a sense of urgency accompanies each character’s curiosity, literally celebrating the purpose of the people and places that surround us. Accentuated by a heightened sensory experience, Kogonada’s own sound design along with atmospheric music from an original score by the two-man Nashville band Hammock, the film challenges how art can effect human behavior, becoming a meditative study of human interaction, exploring a friendship that arises out of troubled circumstances, where emotions resonate among some of the most extraordinary fixtures of modern architecture.