It’s not unheard of for an American indie to premiere at festivals to a unanimously rapturous reception, but Columbus, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, is probably one of the only ones to center around architecture. No less rare is the fact that both the male lead of Columbus (John Cho, of Harold and Kumar and Star Trek fame) and its director Kogonada (best known for his inventive video essays for the British Film Institute and the Criterion Collection) are both Asian-American.
Cho plays Jin, a translator who finds himself stranded in the small town of Columbus, Indiana, where his father, a famous scholar studying Columbus’s unusually rich collection of modernist buildings, has suffered a stroke. There, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young local woman and architecture aficionado too worried about her recovering-addict mother to leave town. The two strike up a friendship as they visit Columbus’s architectural landmarks. As in the films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, a direct influence, Kogonada’s debut feature is a quiet drama made all the more intense for being conveyed through silence and ambience. We caught up with the director in Manhattan before the movie’s August 4 release, discussing diversity in filmmaking, Asian maleness and sexuality, and giving John Cho space to show off his range.
It’s safe to say you’re older than most first-time directors. You’ve had a bit of extra time to develop what you think your art should be. Do you feel like that shows in the movie?
I have had a lot of time to think about what kind of film I would want to make, if I ever had a chance to make it. I think it came from different perspectives, having an academic moment where I was kind of researching an aesthetic question about cinema. Even though I was trying to think about it academically as a kind of argument or case, in my head I was certainly imagining how that kind of aesthetic would play out in today’s modern cinema. And you know, you dream: You’re writing about film, and there’s a part of you that would also love to write a film. I think that’s a lot of us in the community, or a certain amount of us. And that was probably always in the back of my head, and once I started making visual essays I felt certainly closer to that possibility. And I had also done short docs, and I had always sort of had my hands on creative expressions. Yeah, I think I was really working out something. So by the time I had a chance, I’m glad I had all that time. It did allow me to really put something down that felt really thought out.
And you were raised in the Midwest, right? Was it anywhere near Columbus?
I lived most of my life in Chicago, but I did live different places in Indiana at one point. I didn’t know Columbus, even when I lived in Indiana. It really was only recently, but I did pass by.
I was raised in Louisville.
Wow. A midwestern Asian as well.
Pretty much. It gets called a Southern city, but it’s probably the most midwestern part of Kentucky. What kind of films did you have access to back then?
I would sneak into movies. I watched Once Upon a Time in America. It was shocking. I watched a ton. And VHS was coming in, and all of that.
So how did you discover the works of Yasujirō Ozu?
That came later. You know, ’cause for the longest time Ozu films were not available at all. I think I always, like a lot of people, loved a lot of movies. It turns out my parents were cinephiles; I didn’t know. They were Korean, they were real moviegoers, that’s sort of how they met, but they were working-class immigrants. Once you come here …
You have to give that up for a generation.
So I didn’t know any of that about them. But that they would drop me off in a cineplex, [which] maybe suggested they understood that. But there was this moment where I started looking at other kinds of films. I remember watching 400 Blows, and that kind of thing, and that was really starting to shape me a little bit. I had read Paul Schrader’s book, Transcendental Style in Film. I was really fascinated by that. So I watched an Ozu film, the only one you could get at that time, Good Morning. And I was so unimpressed with it. I thought, Why are they talking about this? And then I could not stop thinking about it. Not thinking about it, it was not even cognitive, it was more like I couldn’t stop feeling the emotion of it, or some sort of memory of it. I think certainly it had to do with — if you’re raised in an Asian home, there’s something about that that resonates. It really was that first experience where I couldn’t figure out why a film stayed with me, especially a film that didn’t feel present at the time. You know, with the French New Wave, you could kind of figure out why that seemed to matter.
Pretty much all the Ozu films I’ve seen are about renunciation in some way, giving up something you care about. But in America you’re encouraged to want so much, and renounce so little, and it’s stressful in a different way. Do you see Ozu’s films as being this kind of pacification of this kind of American desire for more all the time?
What was interesting to me too was to flip this sort of thing [in my film] – it’s not the Asian who feels a duty toward the parent, it’s [Casey]. I wanted to confront it by showing this daughter who’s actually feeling this burden for us to associate with, and it is an Asian sensibility, and I kind of wanted to fuse that. That’s one of the things I’m wrestling with — what does diversity look like in filmmaking? I think that an Asian making a film can offer a sensibility that might exist in other characters. It doesn’t always have to have this one-to-one ratio. And I thought, what would that look like, how would that confront that, if this thing this woman can’t do is the American thing, which is just live for herself, what is that like? That was definitely something that was interesting to me.
And there’s a romance in the film, but it’s very chaste. Jin has feelings for Parker Posey’s character and Casey, but he doesn’t get anywhere with either.
I think this is a question about Asian maleness and sexuality. The thing that feels really clear to me is that he’s a sexual being, that he could, probably — that there’s attraction that’s happening — but we don’t have to see it necessarily fulfilled. There’s a lot of tension in him. I think it’s all viable. We have this person he’s had a crush on forever, who — there’s certainly an indication that she’s had some kind of relationship with his father. I think any time, especially if you’re having some kind of intellectual connection, if you’re with a person of the opposite sex, there’s always gonna be that possibility, intention. It definitely exists in the film on both sides, but I think their connection is deeper, it’s something else, and they’re also protecting it a little bit.
Do you feel it’s just as valuable to represent these relationships that don’t fit the standard narrative of consummation?
I think it’s definitely a choice that they [Jin and Casey] both make. I don’t think it’s because it’s not viable. I think there are some representations of Asian males where they’re just not even sexual people, that’s not even viable, so to me — and this is true for all human beings — being sexual is a part of our being. I wanted that to be a part of it, in the same way that one ought not to sexualize just for the sake of it. This is what I love about European cinema, especially at a time when you’re sexually growing up — there’s a way in which they humanize sexuality in other countries where it’s not for pure titillation. It’s because we’re humans and that’s part of our being. That was really significant for me, to see it in a way that is both appealing because we’re sexual, but also, it’s not like suddenly there’s sexy music and the lighting changes and everything. It’s just a part of nature that we are. Not just John, but all of them: I wanted to suggest that it was a part of them.
How was working with John? You’d never met him before, right?Not before us talking about the film. There’s a reason he’s been working in this industry, which is difficult for any Asian-American. He’s had a long career because he is such a professional, he’s a really hard worker, he’s really thoughtful. I think people want to work with him again. But also he’s someone who really loves the medium of acting. However one judges his career, he’s given the most — of all the opportunities, he really is there and present. Also, he has this large range. He came from theater, Berkeley, he wanted to act. But, you know, the roles are really limited, so you don’t get to see him exercise that. So just getting to see him play quiet, and what he was able to do in scenes that had no dialogue and were just him moving through space, it was something to see. He wanted to set the mood: He had been in sets where the lead actors created such a space for everyone to feel safe and generous. He said to me, “I would really like to do that,” and he did. He was really more than just a single actor there; he was really a participant. I only have wonderful things to say about him.
At what point did you decide to introduce the social or class aspect into the narrative?
It was always there. The question of architecture, and art in general, if you ask if it matters, it’s a class question too. I came from a working-class immigrant background, and so it [art] did break through in [my] world. Now that I look back, my parents were also very great at [art], my grandfather was like a calligrapher, so that existed. But it wasn’t accessible to me. We didn’t go to museums or anything like that. It was something I had to still discover myself. So I thought, it has to break through. And I knew that Casey was going to be working-class. I knew when I started doing research on Columbus, I knew that meth was a problem there. The thing that I also, though, wanted to avoid is — I think that there’s almost an aesthetic of poverty, and even an aesthetic of drug addiction in cinema. I didn’t want to create that. I wanted it to be in the past, [and] there’s an aesthetic of hospital scenes that I didn’t want to re-create either. I didn’t want it to be in a hospital room and have that sort of … thing. So there were certain things I wanted to exist in the film but I also wanted to sort of navigate around them.
The interior design in the film was astonishing.
The opening scene is the Miller House, which used to be a residential house, but it’s almost a museum now.
Did you just find it like that?
Alexander Girard, the interior designer, is one of the most famous modernist designers. For a small film like ours, the advantage of getting to shoot that space — we had a great production set designer in Diana Rice, and she did these other spaces, but there were certain spaces where we weren’t allowed to touch them anyways, and it was so incredible.
Do you feel like you’re free to go back to Columbus whenever?[Laughs.] Do I have, like, a key [to the city]? You know what, most of the people have not seen the film, so it will be interesting. But the mayor and the people who helped us make it, a lot of them have seen it, they came to Sundance. There were a few people who were at Sundance who were not a part of the film, they don’t live in Columbus anymore, but they grew up in Columbus. It’s a promotional piece for the city. I am enchanted by that city; I wrestle with it. The film’s not trying to disparage that city at all. I’m actually working on a supplement for the release. I’ve always wanted to do a kind of doc, a small visual thing, I’m actually working on that right now, and it’s bringing me back into the city.
This interview has been edited and condensed.