Imagine Lost In Translation set in a much sleepier metropolis than Tokyo. That's Columbus, which derives its title from its Indiana locale, a small city known for many buildings designed by notable modernist architects.
Like Sofia Coppola's movie, Columbus is a not-quite-romance between a middle-aged man and a woman who's barely out of high school. Pseudonymous Korean-American writer-director Kogonada even tweaks Coppola's East-West ploy: Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a native Midwesterner; Korean-born Jin (John Cho) has no trace of an accent, but frequently talks on his phone in unsubtitled Korean, apparently about his work as a, yup, translator.
Both characters are, of course, in limbo. Casey professes to love Columbus, yet is actually staying there to look out for her mom (Michelle Forbes), a recovering drug addict. Jin is summoned to Indiana after his father, an architect and scholar, collapses while in town to deliver a lecture.
Casey seems genuinely fond of her mother, who has not one but two dead-end jobs. Jin isn't close to his dad, but filial duty requires him to stay with the comatose man until he either dies or gets well enough to travel.
For variety, Kogonada introduces two other not-quite-right romantic prospects. Casey works at the local library with Gabe (Rory Culkin), but their mutual attraction never comes precisely into sync. Jin has long had a crush on the older and unavailable Eleanor (Parker Posey), an associate of his father.
The movie's location is essential to its mood, but also to its story and characterization. Casey and Jin drop the names of numerous architects, and the even the dean of Yale's architecture school. Tour groups regularly walk though scenes, lead by guides whose spiel on Columbus' postwar landmarks Casey has both memorized and internalized. She's fascinated by architecture, but then it's the only game in town.
Casey and Jin spend much time together, and their activities include drinking, dancing, and even a bit of laughing. Yet they don't seem to be having much fun. Columbus' tone could be termed cerebral, or maybe just becalmed.
The film is so spare because Kogonada takes his cues from the buildings that serve as his ready-made stage-set. Their simple lines, rigid geometry, and lack of embellishment dovetail with the script's spartan construction, while Hammock's burbling electro score is as stark as an I.M. Pei facade.
Even some of the movie's visual gags are design-oriented. Jin, whose distance from his father has also estranged him from architecture, takes up residence in a Victorian-style bed and breakfast that seems to be the only large structure in Columbus without a Bauhaus pedigree.
Kogonada, who also edited, painstakingly frames the compositions. Many shots highlight building features, or place the characters precisely in doorways, reflected in multiple mirrors, or glimpsed through glass walls. Modernist architecture's fetish for transparency becomes a narrative motif.
The director apparently took his alias from Kogo Noda, co-scripter of many Yasujiro Ozu films. Those are known for their austerity, but also their humanity. The latter quality is largely missing from Columbus.
Despite Richardson and Cho's assured performances, their characters, dialogue, and relationship are never fully believable. From the unlikely gesture that begins it — a contemporary young woman offers a cigarette to an older male stranger — their connection feels contrived.
Casey and Jin are not, after all, fellow strangers in a strange land. They don't even have an interest in architecture in common. They're more like miniature humans in a 3D model of a modernist structure, their slightly messy presence meant only to set off the purity of the overall scheme.