Sundance 2017: Kogonada’s ‘Columbus’ is a Look at Small Town Life

Columbus Review

There was a secret festival favorite at Sundance 2017. That film was Columbus. This quiet drama is Korean director Kogonada’s first venture into the feature length realm. He is most known for his video essays on Vimeo, and damn did all of that study of film pay off. Kogonada’s Columbus covers a lot of ground in the most elegant gestures and proves Kogonada knows his craft inside and out. From the absolutely exquisite cinematography by Elisha Christian, to the subtle yet powerful performances from lead actors Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho: this quiet film finds its way right into your soul.

Okay, so here’s the thing about Sundance: this festival screens films that I, personally, wouldn’t necessarily watch at home on my sofa. That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a quiet, brooding indie film with a glass of wine and my dog, but these are typically films that you want to live in and experience with an audience. And… not necessarily an audience with friends, or that kind of midnight screening hype of the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie (not knockin’ it, I enjoy these too)…

I’m talking about films that reveal so much about human nature and life that you don’t want to be alone while watching it. You want to sit in the crowd of people who are either crying or confused so you can share and learn from what others took from it. That’s what’s great about festival films. It’s where the art of cinema becomes human both on and off screen. The people who attend film festivals are open to sharing these reactions, and it reveals so many layers to the true power of this art form.

Columbus is this film, and the type of movie you go to Sundance for. It sits with you and blossoms. You might sit in stunned silence as it fades to black, but as the minutes and hours pass… you grow to deeply understand the mirror you just stared at for 104 minutes. The film is largely about being a child to your parent. Not a child like an adolescent, but in what relationship you have to the people who raised you. Kogonada said it best after the film screened (and this has since rocked me to my core):

“Not all of us will be parents, but all of us are children.”

Yeah, that realization gets you right in the heart, doesn’t it? The daughter who forsakes her dreams because she feels responsible and cares for her mom. The son who hates his father and learns to care for him after it’s too late. The contrast of Casey’s responsibility to her mom, and Jin’s obligation to his father culminates in a compelling balance of character that brings out the best in both of them. You actually get to watch these characters grow based off of their friendship.

The film is also a beautiful exploration of small town life and the ambition to “be bigger than where you’re from”. Casey copes with being stuck in her town by learning to appreciate its modern design and therefore finds her passion for architecture… which ultimately could be her ticket out. Most folks I know, myself included, have a love/hate relationship with their rinky dinky hometown, and this film will hit that vein.

There’s a point in the film (not really a major spoiler, but heads up that this is a scene that exists) where Casey is approached by an old classmate who has since moved on. She barrages Casey about her lost potential and the importance of travel. In watching this scene I realized… “SHIT. Am I that asshole?” I started to rethink a lot of my interactions when I visited home in the past decade. Moments like these in the film – especially if you grew up in a small town and have left – will gently tap you on the shoulder and then patiently sit in your brain for days until you face it head on.

Chelsea’s Sundance 2017 Rating: A
Follow Chelsea on Twitter – @chelsmark