‘Columbus’ savours the fine architecture of buildings and relationships alike

An older man and a younger woman are drawn together against a modernist Midwestern skyline in this towering debut

Columbus takes its name from the city in Indiana. Among the many things this debut drama is concerned with are the modernist buildings that have made Columbus a magnet for design aficionados: this small Midwestern conurbation is host to pioneering buildings by masters of post-war modernism like Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese.

From the opening scene, the movie revels in this architecture. A middle-aged woman follows an older gentleman through a series of interiors – spaces of poised, harmonious geometry impeccably filmed by a stationary camera. We find out a little more about this couple as the film progresses, but for now they are subsumed to a far grander design. Less characters in a fiction, they’re more like figures about to be enfolded into the thick pages of an upscale architecture magazine.

These opening moments sounded a note of alarm for me: this reverential approach to beautiful buildings can be a little airless, the cinematic equivalent of a glossy coffee-table book. Columbus looks good, there’s no question about that. Director Kogonada – as he styles himself – and his cinematographer Elisha Christian’s visuals are ravishing. But what leaves a more lasting impression are the intimate, fragile and altogether human dramas unfurling against the concrete structures that Kogonada films so lovingly.

The couple glimpsed in the opening scene are an elderly architecture professor, originally from Korea, and his American colleague Eleanor (Parker Posey). The professor collapses suddenly and thereafter is confined to a hospital, too gravely ill to travel.

This medical crisis prompt the arrival of his adult son Jin from his home in Korea. Jin (John Cho) gives little away, but it’s clear from an awkward drink he has with Eleanor that relations with his ailing father are strained. With Eleanor (for whom Jin has nursed a crush since teenage years) Jin is left alone in the serene splendour of a city-centre guest house, waiting for his father’s condition to deteriorate.

Discussing the exquisite built environment that surrounds them, Jin and Casey go on long walks and grow close

Across town we’re introduced to Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson). This young woman is working in a library, pursued by the sweetly nerdish Gabriel (Rory Culkin) – and shyly flattered by his advances. Casey is whip smart and has a voracious appreciation for the modernist masterpieces in her midst, but she has shelved plans to go to college to look after her mother, a former meth addict.

Jin and Casey are both a little adrift; and both are troubled, in different ways, by the responsibility of caring for a vulnerable parent. Perhaps this is what draws the two together following a brief encounter over a shared cigarette. Perhaps, but then what’s so absorbing about this delicate two-hander is the beautifully understated way that Kogonada allows the relationship between this young woman and older man to play out.

Discussing the exquisite built environment that surrounds them, Jin and Casey go on long walks and grow close. It’s a portrait of an unlikely friendship changing in increments. Guarded, a little cynical even, Jin is beguiled by Casey’s youthful openness. Cho gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, but even better is Richardson as Casey, who chronicles the transition from youth into adulthood with piercing, melancholy soulfulness.

This is a quiet but tremendously accomplished debut that owes a lot to the magisterial subtlety of Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu.

Kogonada, by the way, is a former film critic and the prolific author of short documentaries about cinema history (many of which celebrate movies that have influenced this debut feature). There’s a good range of these video essays online – and I’d recommend them as a taster for Columbus.

Columbus is in cinemas from October 5