Casey (Lu Richardson, 'The Edge of Seventeen') is a student of architecture in the titular town in Indiana, a place known for its eye-catching buildings. Caring for her meth-addicted mother (Posey), Casey hasn’t chosen a college despite having graduated from school the previous year. She gravitates towards South Korean Jin (Cho, 'Harold & Kumar') who is in town waiting to see if his estranged college professor father will pull out of a coma…
In his first feature length outing South Korean director Kogonada, best known for his documentary shorts on Linklater, Malick, Hitchcock and Kubrick, delivers an impressive debut. And Kubrick would approve of the symmetrical framing and emotional distance that’s found here. Kogonada is reluctant to move the camera, preferring to set up the (usually striking) shots and having all the action to play out within them. The static framing taps into Casey’s mindset. Unable to decide to stick around for her mother or forge ahead with her own life, and her director skilfully brings this to his visuals: the straight lines of the bookshelves, the trees, the doorframes, the lampposts, the walls and cubicles she’s shot against are like prison bars, hemming her in. She can’t go anywhere.
It’s only when she runs into Jin for the first time that Kogonada moves his camera, slowly tracking along with his leads as they get to know each other; but even then there is a sturdy wall with straight lines keeping them apart. Even when characters flit about rooms they feel empty, and Kogonada sometimes has characters speak while obscured by walls: these buildings can talk if only one would listen. It’s an austere film with Hammock’s moody ambient soundtrack adding more distance rather than filling the void.
It’s difficult to know if the audience is supposed to be as enthralled with the buildings as much as Casey is. It’s quite possible that Koganda deliberately shoots them as nothing more than cold bricks on top of each other only to, over time (all of the 140mins are felt), reveal their inner beauty. When the audience is privy to the idea behind the designs, their history and their hidden flaws, so to do the emotionally dulled characters reveal more about themselves. Casey has some unresolved issues with her mother about her upbringing while Jin had a fractious relationship with his absent father. Architecture as healing art.
It’s not a film one would rush back to see but the gentle progression of the friendship/romance is delicately handled.