John Cho Takes a Midwestern Trek Into Columbus

He's waited his whole life to be in a film like this, he says.

When John Cho recently tweeted “Waited my whole life to be in a film like this,” he wasn’t promoting the latest Star Trek sequel. It was a reference to Columbus, a modest independent film that provided him with a coveted lead role. In it he plays Jin, the son of an architect who flies into Columbus, Ind., after his father, a visiting lecturer, falls ill. While wandering around the hospital grounds, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a high school graduate who is stuck in a limbo similar to his own.

Cho was intrigued by the script when he read it but watching the director’s short films ultimately convinced him to accept the part. In a phone interview Cho suggested looking up director Kogonada‘s website, “You’ll see his work and they’re these visual essays on filmmakers. He does a cut of all the hands in Bresson’s movies and sets it to music. They’re extremely well-observed. His Wes Anderson piece was so fun, and a Linklater piece might have brought tears to my eyes.”

When Casey offers to give Jin a tour of the city, he, like the audience watching, discovers a remarkable collection of modernist buildings. Some of the most iconic names in 20th century architecture designed there. Among the many recognizable names: Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero, I. M. Pei, and Gunnar Birkerts. The movie was filmed on site and Cho described what it was like to spend time there.

“It was a magical summer for me being in those buildings. What I liked about the mid-century architecture there was it’s extremely functional, and it’s meant to encourage human interaction in different ways,” he says. He visited the famous North Church, by Eero Saarinen, where the congregants are seated in the round so they can look at each other instead of their backs. Cho noticed that “each architect’s personality or their worldview was on display in how they arranged their spaces. It was an education about architecture that was incredibly emotional, but not at all formal.”

“The town itself is in the middle of these corn fields. You drive past them and past what I, as a city snob, think is the ugliest part of America. All the Walmarts that have taken over so much of this country, and the Arby’s. All of a sudden you cross this bridge and you’re in this amazing town that was largely inspired by this industrialist, J. Irwin Miller, who decided they needed to have civic pride in the buildings.”  

Columbus is a platonic love story, a nearly extinct genre of film. He and Casey’s relationship grows, not into a romance, but via the Socratic method. Jin, who is twenty years older, wants Casey to think her ideas through to their logical conclusion. He’s not condescending to her; he’s responding to her need for an intellectual sparring partner. In discussing Richardson’s acting technique, Cho said, “It’s very easy to act with her because she has this face where it’s like you’re looking through an aquarium and you can see everything inside.”

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus (Photo credit Elisha Christian. Courtesy of Superlative Films).

As Jin and Casey make pilgrimages from one location to the next, they start to have discussions about architectural theory, making observations about the visible and the invisible. After his initial reading of the script, Cho thought that this could make for some dry line readings: “I didn’t want the film to be about architecture because it’s not. It’s surrounded by architecture and takes place in it, but it’s about these two people.” Their friendship develops through an exchange of ideas. They fall in love with each other’s minds, much the same way you would with a favorite novelist or poet. Cho understood that “you could be talking about something, which is intellectual, but you have to make sure that your characters, all the proper emotional impulses are there.”

The challenge was to make those emotions register against the architecture. Since the buildings themselves are static in Kogonada’s frames, it often looks like the blocking would have restricted the actors. But Cho says this wasn’t the case, “I felt very secure. It was almost like being on stage in the sense that most of the shots in this film were the dimensions of a typical stage. And sometimes he would give me total freedom.” Columbus is the kind of film Cho had waited his whole life for because “we’d come in, and it was a discussion each day, with each shot. It was always a collaboration.”

Columbusnot rated, is playing at the Opera Plaza Cinemas, 601 Van Ness Ave.

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