Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (2016) is a poetically structured movie about how poetry sustains a soul in the small town of the title. Kogonada’s “Columbus” is an architecturally structured movie about how architecture can do the same.
Set in the title Indiana town noted for its many works by such modernist masters as Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei, the film has a wealth of examples to choose from. More importantly, Kogonada in his impressive feature debut applies the principles of these architects to the compositions and structure of the film, a formal tour-de-force that eclipses its modest — though affecting and impeccably acted — narrative.
Kogonada establishes his mastery with the opening sequence. A famous Korean architectural scholar who believes in “modernism with a soul” is in town for a lecture. It’s raining and his assistant (Parker Posey), searches for him on the grounds of one of the town’s architectural masterpieces. Kogonada establishes a meditative tone and rhythm as his compositions parallel the building’s pleasing symmetries.
But small details, like red and black umbrellas upside down in the background of one scene, offer minor dissonances, and prefigure tragedy — the professor has wandered off and is found lying on the ground. He has suffered a stroke and is taken to a local hospital in a coma.
This emergency summons to Columbus the professor’s estranged son, Jin (John Cho), a freelance translator with little interest in his father’s passion. He takes up residence in the room in the inn where his father was staying — another landmark site — and seems unsettled by the building’s stately design and elegant furnishings. He is also intimidated by his father’s suit jacket still hanging in a closet, and his white hat, a sad highlight on a green armchair.
Jin is not alone for long in his somber vigil. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young local woman working at the library, befriends him and tries to share with him her own love of the great architectural achievements in her town. Like Jin, she also has parental troubles. Her mother (Michelle Forbes), a recovering meth addict, relies on Casey to keep her straight as she works part-time as a cleaner in some of the same modernist buildings that bring Casey solace. Though Casey has an opportunity to go out of state to college, she’s afraid to leave her mother on her own. So, both characters are trapped in town by obligations to — and feelings of guilt about — their parents.
They could have done worse. Jin teases Casey about sounding like a tour guide as they visit her favorite buildings and she talks about them while they smoke cigarettes. Their relationship verges on the romantic, but like that in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (2003), it is more a kinship of souls. Though their relationship may be transient, their bond endures, a precious human connection sheltered by the beneficent architectural structures in Columbus — both the town and the movie.
Written and directed by Kogonada. Starring John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes. At the Brattle. 100 minutes. Unrated (lots of smoking).Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.