The foregrounds of our lives are so full of motion that we forget to attend to those things that aren’t constantly in flux. The assiduous buzz of work and obligation and society deflects our attention from the backdrop of life. And as we remain distracted, that background ossifies into a fixture, permanent and forgotten. The job, the family, the friends, the lifestyle. Our relationships to them become immutable beneath the stream of daily existence. We can’t even imagine a different life until a light is shone on its background, revealing that so much relies on what we’ve grown to neglect.
Columbus, the directorial debut of video essayist Kogonada, is a film all about the backgrounds of people’s lives. Set in Columbus, Indiana, a small town widely recognized for its treasure-trove of modern architecture, the film follows Jin (John Cho), a Korean literary translator who’s visiting to care for his comatose architect father, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a bright, recent high-school graduate who works at the library and lives with her mom rather than attending college. Through a series of conversations, the two come to difficult realizations about their lives.
More than any movie I’ve ever seen, Columbus is about drawing the viewer’s attention to the background. Kogonada combines his eye for framing with the rectilinear lines of the modern architecture of the town of Columbus to create shots that have an unusual depth. In scene after scene, my eye strolled from plane to plane within the frame. While Jin and Casey discuss their lives in leisurely static shots, our gaze is encouraged to wander across the asymmetrical façade of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church or get lost in the concrete grid beams on the ceiling of I.M. Pei’s Bartholomew County Public Library. While these buildings are striking, Casey, who loves the buildings, points out that the residents of Columbus rarely notice them. To most of the people who grew up among these treasures, these buildings are simply background. Through the discerning eye of Kogonada and his architecture-loving protagonist Casey, viewers are encouraged to meditate on these buildings instead of ignoring them in favor of action in the foreground.
At the same time, both Richardson and Cho deliver wonderful performances as people who feel stuck in their own lives. They’ve grown so accustomed to their lives as they are that they don’t realize what else their lives could be. Jin, in his chilly relationship with his father, won’t see that, even with his father in a coma, it’s not too late to take some time away from a grueling work schedule and make amends. Casey, on the other hand, feels unable to leave her mother and go to college on the East Coast because she feels obligated to care for her mother. Even with a bright future staring her in the face, she can’t imagine moving away to a different life. In both cases, the characters feel stuck because they keep ignoring the backgrounds. They don’t pay attention to the most significant parts of their lives because they’ve been that way for as long as they can remember. Instead they continue to deal with day-to-day distractions. Richardson and Cho, in a pair of restrained performances, communicate a sense of ennui that matches the perpetually ignored architectural masterpieces of Columbus, Indiana. As the film unfolds at a stately pace, it draws our attention to the things that ordinarily remain unnoticed.
In the end, though, Columbus isn’t a film about being stuck in the setting of one’s life. Instead it’s a movie about paying attention to what’s around us. Columbus, Indiana is a town full of architectural treasures that remain largely unappreciated; Casey’s life is one full of opportunities that are far more attainable than they seem; and Jin’s father is right there in a hospital bed, even if he’s felt so distant to Jin for so long. But a jolt can make us see the world anew. It can bring the background to our attention. It might be a crisis, like Jin’s father’s coma. It might be a chance encounter, like Casey’s improbable friendship with Jin. In Columbus, we see that sometimes all we need to move on in life is to direct our gaze at what we habitually ignore, for somewhere in that background, a new piece of the foreground is hidden in plain sight.