The internet has made it easy for aspiring filmmakers to show their work and — in some cases — launch professional careers. A former film scholar who calls himself Kogonada may be the first filmmaker to emerge from the internet-based world of "supercuts," a remix culture in which fans compile and mash-up clips from feature films to create something new.
Kogonada long has been more than a casual fan or participant in supercut culture. His short pieces are visual essays often made to illuminate the art of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson, Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh. (Examples of Kogonada's mesmerizing work are freely available at kogonada.com.) As his reputation grew, Kogonada was commissioned by the British Film Institute and The Criterion Collection and others to create new essays. He abandoned work on a doctoral dissertation on Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu when he realized he would rather create his own films than dissect the master's feature films.
The film industry soon came calling and the result is Columbus, Kogonada's debut feature. Probably best described as the world's first architecture drama, Columbus builds on the essence of the director's visual essays by offering new ways of seeing modern art and its place in the world. Kogonada had never even visited a film set before starting work on Columbus, which should serve as inspiration for any film industry outsider harboring dreams of cinematic glory.
The film was shot in Columbus, Indiana, a small town known as a mecca for modernist architecture and public art. In the mid-20th century, a local foundation invited many of the world's top architects — including I.M. Pei, Richard Meier and Eero Saarinen — to design public structures, resulting in more than 60 world-class examples of the modernist aesthetic.
The town provides the setting and directly informs the gradually deepening friendship at the heart of Columbus. Jin (John Cho), an Asian-American who lives in South Korea, travels to Columbus to take care of his father, a renowned architecture scholar who fell seriously ill while in town to deliver a lecture.
By chance, Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young "architecture nerd" hanging around after high school to watch over her recovering-addict mother (Michelle Forbes). In a series of extended conversations, Jin and Casey explore the buildings of Columbus and reveal personal struggles based in family experiences and obligations.
Kogonada's influences are not hard to decipher — many of the filmmakers lauded in his visual essays are present in Columbus. Ozu's minimalism provides much inspiration, and the film owes a significant debt to Linklater's Before trilogy of romantic conversation-based films. But Kogonada has made something original and unique. Constructed from a seemingly endless series of beautifully composed and striking images, the film contrasts human drama with sometimes-alienating modernism to generate real emotion and illuminate simple truths.
Columbus also marks the first dramatic starring role for Cho (Sulu in the Star Trek reboot films, Harold & Kumar), an actor so obviously deserving of leading-man status that he actually inspired a #starringjohncho social media campaign last year. Fans transposed his image onto posters for familiar blockbusters to spotlight the lack of major roles for Asian-Americans in Hollywood. With Columbus, Kogonada (who was born in South Korea and raised in the Midwest) chips away at one of the film world's last remaining social barriers — not bad for an artist who only recently emerged from behind a computer screen.