"Are we losing interest in everyday life?"
What does it really mean to hold space for someone?
In the healing universe, "holding space" implies a willingness to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they're on without judging them and without trying to fix or alter their outcome. "Holding Space" means that we open our hearts and offer unconditional support free of judgment and control.
In the hours since having watched writer/director Kogonada's extraordinary Columbus, I have thought about this idea of "holding space" quite often. I have thought about what it means to be fully present with one another, with our surroundings and within a world that both moves us forward and seemingly pulls us back.
When we hold space for one another, we seldom embrace all that holding space really means. It is a practice associated with the healing journey, yet it is also an almost mystical understanding of how the universe is necessarily framed. Kogonada's Columbus is structured with a similarly mystical understanding of how both intellect and emotion are irrevocably and necessarily intertwined, the film's characters intentionally and subconsciously holding space for one another in this film that is both one of the year's most extraordinarily designed and constructed cinematic works and one of the year's most delightfully underplayed yet infinitely compelling stories.
It is early in Columbus when Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, Split, Edge of Seventeen) and her co-worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin, Jack Goes Home, Scream 4) are having the kind of conversation that many of us have had in our young adult years over coffee at our neighborhood all-night joint as we plot our place in the universe that still terrifies us. As Casey and Gabriel discuss the notion of attention bias, we become aware that this confidante, expertly played by Culkin at his very best, is attempting to communicate something for which he has no frame of reference. That something, really, is never actually identified. It is love or affection or maybe merely interest in a human connection that goes deeper than these ideas he shares with Casey, yet as many of us did when we were in our young adult years he recoils from the discomfort when Casey quietly returns his interest.
This scene is a quiet scene, almost a "blink and you'll miss it" attempt at human connection, yet it is essential to everything else that unfolds in Columbus, an arthouse work of wonder that opens in Indianapolis at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema on September 1st with Kogonada himself scheduled to attend select screenings on September 2nd.
If Columbus were to rest solely upon the dynamics of this relationship between Casey and Gabriel, it could be a remarkable little gem of a film. Fortunately, Kogonada takes it even further.
Kogonada, for those unaware, creates extraordinary video essays for the Criterion Collection films and Sight & Sound among others, video essays that have long indicated that a truly gifted filmmaker may dwell deep within the insightful, intelligent and sensitive essayist. Columbus bears this truth and brings it to life in magnificent fashion, though it's a quiet magnificence unlike any other film you are likely to see this year.
Columbus was actually filmed in Columbus, Indiana, a Midwestern mecca of modernist architecture and the place to where Jin (John Cho) must travel when his father, a renowned architect, experiences a medical crisis while in town for a lecture. It is clear that the father and son are estranged, Jin having long since left home and transplanted himself as a Korean-based book translator.
While most cinematic efforts at estrangement manufacture dramatic conflicts and cathartic confrontations, Columbus simply holds space for Jin and the man he has been, currently is and will become. This holding of space is, perhaps, most vividly personified by the introduction of Casey into his life, a younger woman yet a woman whose passion for architecture and Columbus can't truly mask the fears and insecurities and artificial chains that bind the promising young woman to a life that doesn't truly interest her. Michelle Forbes (The Killing, True Blood) is quietly exquisite as Casey's mother, a recovering meth addict who, thankfully, avoids every meth addict stereotype in favor of a fully complex, realized woman worthy of Casey's sacrificial devotion.
It should not be surprising that Columbus is constructed masterfully, Elisha Christian's sublime lensing beautifully illuminating one of Indiana's most striking small towns while similarly reflecting the wonder of its inhabitants. There are so many shots in Columbus that are immersive and enveloping, yet not in a way that's pretentious or distracting. Instead, it becomes evident that the camera is telling us the same story as Kogonada's flawless ensemble cast.
John Cho has always been an under-appreciated actor, yet that has never been quite as evident as it is in Columbus, where he gives a performance that is quietly in-tune with his surroundings and practically bouncing off the city's modernist icons designed by such architectural legends as Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and others. Cho's performance adds, almost inexplicably, a humane depth to these structures and manages to bring them to life as much as he brings himself to life here.
Yet, perhaps, the film's most revelatory performance belongs to Haley Lu Richardson, whose recent performances in Split and Edge of Seventeen indicated a promise that is fully realized here as Casey. A scene between Casey and Jin wrapped within a covered bridge could have easily felt contrived, yet instead the closest thing that Columbus has to a cathartic conflict scene feels honest and authentic and as if the space they are holding for one another is, out of necessity, widening and flexing itself.
It's a brilliant scene. Simply realized.
Kogonada's attention to the visual presentation of Columbus and the way it impacts his characters is reminiscent of works by Yasujiro Ozu and Richard Linklater, yet it is also uniquely manifested. Columbus is a film destined to be referred to as a Kogonada film.
It is practically a miracle that Kogonada's technique doesn't drown out the film's humanity, but such is the case. Instead, Columbus becomes as much a film about the ways in which our structures "hold space" for us as it is about the people in our lives who love us wherever we are. Expertly weaving together precision technique and transparent humanity, Columbus is one of 2017's best motion pictures.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic