Kogonada is a name familiar to many cinephiles. His video essays, often featured on the Criterion Collection’s website and releases, are tightly edited celebrations of his favorite filmmakers, among them Ingmar Bergman, Wes Anderson, Robert Bresson, and Yasujirō Ozu. With videos devoted to exploring the presence of hands, centering, passageways, and more in directors’ works, it can be said with relative clarity that Kogonada is consistently, and literally, engaged in a project of deconstructing cinema. That his subjects are often auteurs gives his essays a poetic dimension, as they keep vigil over the certain something—he might say “form”—that makes their films stay with us.
It comes as little surprise, then, that his first feature feels like the work of a precocious—though scarcely pretentious—student. Columbus takes place in the namesake town in Indiana, a small Midwestern municipality that also happens to be a mecca of modernist architecture. The film is as much a meditation on form, space, and time as it is a study of the nascent friendship between Jin (John Cho), in town to visit his ill father, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a bright 19-year-old with an amorphous passion for architecture. It’s a small picture that’s both brainy and deeply emotional.
Last week, I met Kogonada at Cinetic Media, where we talked about working with actors, being influenced by Ozu, and seeking “modernism with a soul.”
How did your video-essay work inform the making of Columbus? They seem to have some formal similarities.
In many ways I was workshopping and playing with form itself. It was happening in a public space where I was kind of engaging cinematic forms that interest me and reworking them in ways that I found interesting and compelling, and so, certainly, it was part of this larger conversation I was having in my head about cinema and always with a desire to maybe one day make a film. That’s a big dream, you know, to say, “I’m gonna make a film,” so I didn’t necessarily think that that was possible, but it was there. So I think it informs it because it’s a part of the same conversation in some ways.
In other interviews you’ve given you talk about this idea of form a lot. What does form mean for you?
I think content is obvious. Content is what we always talk about, and sometimes when we see a film we immediately talk about the story of the film. We interpret and we do it with art itself. I understand that, and one can really be challenged by the idea of something. I’ve definitely gone through periods, and still do, in which that’s something that I engage, but I think in my own personal life, the thing that’s stayed with me, like the thing that I find my whole being altered by, is something that’s harder to articulate, which is kind of the form of something that stays with me. And whether it’s a presentation of time or even space itself, it’s harder for me to shake off because it’s not just something that I’ve reduced to an idea or story and there’s something about that that fascinates me. Growing up, my dad was always his own kind of formalist—not in an academic or theoretical way, but he always told me to pay attention to those kinds of things. He and my mom would often take walks and sometimes he would often come home with a branch or a rock, and he would always say, “Do you see this?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it’s a rock or branch.” [He’d then say to really] look at it. He’d really make me pay attention to the form of things that I pass by all the time and to appreciate it, to note it. So that has, I think, also been a part of my being.
Do you fear that people engage with content to the detriment of form?
It can be a distraction. You know what I love about architecture and food? Both kind of make you contend with form. If you made a meal and you just talked about some idea, some story of the meal, but not the way it tastes, not the way you’re really responding to it, maybe you could convince yourself that something you don’t even like, that you’re not really responding to tangibly or sensually, is good because you like the idea behind it. But I do think that what matters, or a big part of that equation, is: “How are we responding to it?” And maybe not even immediately but maybe the day after. What’s staying with you at the end of the day? That matters. I really believe form matters, and so if content gets in the way of that so that we can’t even address it, that it’s as if it doesn’t matter, then I’d say, yes, content sometimes gets in the way of that.
Well now I understand why you refer to your video essays as “sushi”!
[laughs] Right! Well, yeah. I think those cuts matter. I really feel like it’s something that will help us, will deepen us in some way.
I think it was Godard who said that in order to criticize a film you have to make another film. Do you see Columbus as responding to that sort of thought?
Yeah, and maybe it’s not a critique, but it’s wanting to join the conversation. I was studying Ozu and I really felt that he was pursuing a kind of cinema that was really addressing what it means to be modern and offering a sense of time and space that could connect in a way to modern beings. In his case, post-war Japanese citizens but even for the world, like trying to understand that. And that’s gripped me because it moved me. It addressed my own existential floundering and made me want to make cinema that continued that conversation. He passed away, and I think there was more to be explored. So, in regard to feeling like cinema is a part of a conversation, that for me is what I feel so honored by: to be able to assert myself a little bit into that ongoing conversation.