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Director Kogonada: ‘Film gave me breath’

Director Kogonada: ‘Film gave me breath’

October 09
05:29 2018

There is much the director Kogonada is happy to discuss. His recent decision to move to Los Angeles from Nashville, for instance, he says was inspired partly by his career, but also by his children’s love of the ocean. His real name, however, remains out of bounds. His pseudonym was the product of a long struggle to make work under his own name. Years went by in which he was creatively paralysed. “I’m very self-critical,” he says. “This just makes me feel much freer. I mean, novelists and musicians do it all the time.”

So one of the most extraordinary films of the year has a director who must remain at least a little mysterious. But Columbus, his first feature, really is a marvel — something like a romance and in a genre all of its own. The setting is the Indiana small town of the title, the “modernist mecca” whose unlikely array of great 20th-century architecture brings together young librarian Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), the son of a celebrated architect and a Korean-American like Kogonada.

Everything in sight is fascinating. One moment, your breath will be taken by a glance between the actors; the next by a shot of Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Conference Center or Myron Goldsmith’s Republic newspaper building.

Long hair tied back, Kogonada is endlessly affable. You might call him bookish if you didn’t know that his life had always revolved around film. If in the course of a question you tell him you like the film, he circles back to acknowledge that before answering. “Thank you. That means a lot.” Occasionally, he will break into a vigorous nod, as when discussing the professional moment his star Cho is currently enjoying. By starring this summer in the tech-savvy Searching, the actor became the first Asian-American male to headline a mainstream studio thriller. As even the sleepiest observer will know, 2018 has also seen a landmark in the box office triumph of Crazy Rich Asians. On some levels, Columbus is a world away from that romp through Singapore high society, but Kogonada still beams at the mention of the film and the cultural splash it has made.

“Just in terms of representation, it’s so important. My boys are Asian-American and they are always overjoyed to see people on screen who look like them,” he says. “The idea that audiences didn’t want to see Asian-American faces was always insulting, so I’m ecstatic to see it disproved.” For a second he stalls, then elects to keep going. “If I’m honest, the pseudonym was about being an Asian-American too. There is something about being an immigrant in America and having the power to name yourself.”

At first glance it is Jin, a second-generation Asian-American, who chimes most clearly with the backstory of the director. He grew up in the Midwest — mostly Chicago — the son of “incredibly busy” Korean parents. Circumspect too about his age, he says he hit adolescence in the early 1990s. “We were the archetypal immigrant family. Working class. Building a life.”

He eventually gravitated to film, a passion of his mother’s too. Part of the appeal was the glimpse of an Asian culture left behind by his parents. He became entranced by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose films he sought out on imported DVDs (later he would take the name of the director’s writing partner as his pseudonym). But Ozu was only part of a wider ardour for classical high cinema. “Film gave me breath,” he says, matter-of-factly.

In that, his story is less like that of Jin and more akin to that of Casey, the bright young woman from a single-parent family who forms a deep personal connection with the buildings of her home town (watching Columbus, you can easily fall for them too). For Kogonada, his fervour led to academia. He wanted to be as close to film as possible.

“When you’re touched profoundly by an art form, you want to participate in it, whether by talking about it or making it yourself. But in film, making it yourself is hard. Economically, there are permissions involved. It’s not as easy as picking up a paintbrush.”

But a route would take shape. Traditionally, film lovers have been stuck writing about their ideas, replying to images with words. In the new world of cheap, accessible digital editing, Kogonada instead began creating “video essays” from shots in the films that obsessed him, poetic mosaics designed to illustrate, say, the flawless symmetrical camerawork of Stanley Kubrick. The videos won enough attention to kindle interest from backers in a possible feature. Around the same time, simply curious about the place from its reputation, he took a road trip to Columbus. Pieces fell into place.

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in ‘Columbus’

His precision aesthetic was a natural fit for the gorgeous order of spaces such as the vibrant Cleo Rogers Memorial Library. But if some meticulous filmmakers might scowl at actors crashing into their frames — cattle, Hitchcock famously called them — Kogonada says his nervousness gave way to “delight” at the improvisations of his cast. The result is a film intrigued equally by buildings and people. “Modernism with a soul,” Jin says of his father’s work, and it could serve as the motto of Columbus too.

There is, Kogonada says, a specific Asian-American sensibility in his work. “An approach to the stories that are told and the way they are told. I think that is important when we talk about representation. Not everything is just about the face on screen.”

Part of that sensibility is, he explains, expressed in the narrative itself. Columbus is about people caught between two lives, two futures — Casey stranded by family obligations, Jin straddling Korea and the US. Even their relationship is two things at once, somehow both platonic and not. And despite being shot in an industrious 18 days, it unfolds in a rhythm wholly distinct from the quick-fire frenzy of much contemporary film — and much contemporary life.

But the parallel between film and architecture Columbus suggests is not perfect. While people will always need buildings, they may not use them as cinemas much longer. For every film-lover — and film-maker — Netflix looms. Again, Kogonada smiles and shrugs.

“I think what we are feeling the loss of is a certain kind of collective experience. But we’re only 120 years into this art form, so I don’t buy the idea it is going to vanish. The bigger point is the other voices that have started to emerge in American cinema. A whole range of African-American film-makers, of women film-makers, a lot of new voices suddenly being able to enter the game. So it’s a strange time to say, ‘Oh, in fact it’s over now.’ No, actually I’m optimistic. I really feel like we’re just beginning.”

‘Columbus’ is in UK cinemas from October 5

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