Kogonada is always walking between two worlds. Born in Korea and raised in the American Midwest, he became a celebrated film theorist by cutting together striking videos that highlighted the works of master directors. Now, he’s seeking to join the ranks of the auteurs with his first film as a director, Columbus.
The movie is set in the working class town of Columbus, Indiana, which is known worldwide for its stunning modern architecture — and the blight that surrounds them. Stained with humidity and rot, the buildings serve as a constant reminder of a bright future that never really came. This is the backdrop for the film’s leads, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), two individuals burdened by both their parents and their own troubles.
Although not autobiographical, the film is infused with Kogonada’s own life story, as well as the lives of other Asian-Americans. “It’s both my life and people I that I know,” Kogonada says of the story. “We are burdened as sons and children, we wrestle with that.”
Although tiny in scope compared to the superheroes and aliens that dominate the summer movie season, Kogonada’s film is far-reaching in its themes about loneliness, the obligations a child has to the people who raised them, and perhaps most revelatory, the quiet existential crisis within Asian-American men. Kogonada spoke with Inverse about Columbus, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year to wide acclaim and hits theaters on Friday.
Last year, people used the hashtag #StarringJohnCho to highlight the lack of Asian-American leading men in Hollywood, and now there’s Columbus starring John Cho. How aware of the hashtag were you when the movie was being cast?
We cast him before [the hashtag]. Of course when it started trending, we were aware, like, oh my god, he’s gonna star in our film. John himself was really surprised by the attention. We were delighted the conversation was happening. John, he feels the burden of representing the Asian-American community, but he also doesn’t want to politicize what he cares about, which is the craft of acting. At that time, he had gotten a lot of interview requests, but he was waiting. He felt like, “I don’t want to talk about this until I have a film I’m ready to talk about,” and now he’s made himself available. He was excited to not only star in a film, but a film he cared about and got to flex a different kind of muscle. Not just as some martial arts action figure, although he’d be fantastic.
You don’t see a lot of Asian men in American cinema who are wrestling with ideas, their parents, their existential crisis. But as an Asian-American male, that’s what Asian-American males are like. We are existential people. We love talking about art and trying to figure things out. There’s such a lack of that, and yet in everyday life, that’s what Asian men are.
So was there still pushback in trying to cast John Cho for your movie?
There was a pushback for an Asian-American lead, of course. We have one of the Asian-American men, but there was pushback that there was a lead who was Asian-American. Yeah, with financing. You would think with this movement, that there would be all kinds of excitement, but I think the film was different. Maybe if we had this action or rom-com, there would have been some lean in, but we did hear from financiers who said, “We’re not interested in Asian-American men. They have no market value.”
Then Chris Weitz and Danielle Renfrew Behrens, who ultimately financed it, they were gung ho, supportive of what that script and vision was. It takes someone like that. They protected it. Chris Weitz was championing John the whole time.
You really nailed some of the anxieties that Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American men, endure. We’re a family-first culture, but as Americans, we yearn for independence. Meanwhile, it was interesting you paired Jin with Casey, a white American girl who only wants to care for her mother.
if you’re from Asian culture, there’s the Asian burden of taking care of your parents. I liked that it’s flipped, that he’s an Asian guy resisting, which is so deeply ingrained, and she is someone who feels responsible. Sometimes we talk about diversity but in doing so we isolate diversity. I think it’s possible that Asian sensibilities can slip into other worlds. But it’s really about this small death between the mother and daughter: Can she [Casey] say bye to her mom? I always knew that was going to be the switch, but they do feel connected by this impending departure of their parents.
But they’re also connected by architecture. What I love is that it’s through fresh eyes that he’s [Jin] able to see what his father loves so much, the very thing that he has always [resisted]. I’m sure his father tried to make him see what he appreciates, but he’s so resistant because of his relationship. It takes this outside person he doesn’t have to feel defensive towards to open up to.
You previously said you were inspired to write the film after visiting Columbus, Indiana. Was it the buildings or the people that ultimately made you make the movie?
It was the buildings and the history. The people were amazing. But if it didn’t have the history, I wouldn’t have been so committed. It’s a fascinating town in the midwest, in the middle of cornfields, but it had some progressive vision of design and art, that architecture can matter even in a town in the middle of America. And the results are a bit melancholy. There is this desire and hope, but there are limits to that promise. It’s not a utopian town.
What sort of attention did you get from the local townspeople? It’s not every day a movie is shot there.
It was a big risk to write a film with no other option in mind. It was site-specific film, I wrote the conversations that were going to happen in these different spaces. We really lucked out.
The first person we connected to in Columbus self-identified with Casey. Her name was Erin Hawkins. She grew up in Columbus, she started loving architecture, and it’s true there are people who see it and it’s invisible, they don’t care. She was one of those who saw it and then she came back and was in a position to champion it. She got everyone involved, she made everyone in that town [realize] that this was worth our time. It was a welcome reception. The mayor threw a dinner and came to Sundance.
You were known before as a video essayist. What was it like to put theory into practice?
It’s humbling. I love everything about cinema and having the opportunity to see how the nuts and bolts of filmmaking work, not just some idea but financing, getting a crew, compromises, was really vital to understand cinema on a deeper level.
What sort of compromises did you have to face?
It wasn’t a compromise of vision or integrity, which I’m fortunate about. It was more about constraints of schedule, some of it money or location. We had 18 days to shoot. That itself makes you compromise whatever vision you have. You’re already recalibrating the film. These are also tourist spaces so they had to shut it down to let us use it. Time was always the big obstacle. At the end of the day I made the film I wanted to make.
This is somewhat spoilery, but people are going to ask: Do Jin and Casey hook up?
I don’t mind saying it, I think they’re so connected, there is something intimate, any time a male and a woman spend time together there’s always that possibility. But there’s no scene to me that suggests they do.
Columbus is now in theaters.