How Kogonada’s Video Essays Inform His Films

“The only great problem of cinema seems to be more and more, with each film, when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it” – Jean-Luc Godard

When Kogodana’s feature debut, Columbus, premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the writer/director was already a familiar name — at least in cinephile households. Over the past five years, he’d dazzled this community with a steady stream of video essays for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, spotlighting technical and thematic patterns within the works of Yasujirō Ozu, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Wes Anderson, and others.

Many of the largely glowing reviews from Park City that January, and later in summer as Columbus classed up indie screens, rightfully make note of Kogodana’s previous scholarly work, praising his visual precision and command of tone. But the extent to which the filmmaker’s critical eye and seemingly encyclopedic grasp of cinematic history has impacted his own work has grown far clearer with his 2022 sophomore effort, After Yang.

Much like Kogonada did with his analyses of filmographies, having two features to his name allows critics to better sense what’s important to the man himself as a filmmaker. And by considering his narrative work alongside those of the artists he’s chosen to highlight, a fascinating portrait emerges of his influences and the distinct original contributions he’s making to the medium — none of which are overly beholden to any of the masters and contemporaries he’s studied.

Since Kogonada’s video essays are primarily visual works, accompanied by music and occasional text and narration, it’s logical that his narrative films foremost look exceptionally sharp. Two of his looks at shot construction, “Kubrick // One-Point Perspective” and “Wes Anderson // Centered,” provide well-rounded understandings of what makes each filmmaker’s meticulously constructed aesthetic unique and identifiable. Combing through both artists’ careers, Kogonada presents thrilling montages that thoroughly illustrate his theses, offering up mini film schools in a matter of minutes.

Kogonada centers characters and objects a fair amount in After Yang, but rather than ape Kubrick or Anderson, he’s more apt to take their commitment to visuals as inspirations for his own interests, especially in Columbus. Set and filmed in the titular Indiana town and prominently featuring its wealth of modern architecture, characters are often shot at a distance so that the buildings and/or interior decorating can also be showcased within the same frame, or in the forefront with a structure’s appealing angles in the background. Instead of being consistently centered, the buildings intentionally fit within the frame to highlight their full majesty, drawing viewers’ eyes to them, regardless of their orientation in the shot.

The cumulative result is a remarkable sense of place, which proves key to unlocking the motivations and limitations of the film’s protagonists. While longtime resident and part-time building tour guide Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) loves the town’s rich design history and dreams of becoming an architect, her fondness for these surroundings is tied up with a commitment to caring for her recovering addict mother, and the fears of what would happen if she left tragically keep her rooted.

Complementing her struggles are those of Jin (John Cho), who’s summoned to Columbus from South Korea after his estranged architect father falls ill while in Indiana for a lecture. Due to their fraught relationship, Jin has long resisted communing with his father’s profession. Yet after befriending Casey, spending time in and among these revered structures with her, and gradually gaining a greater understanding of their allure, he finds some sense of peace with his hospitalized dad — or at least enough to build from. Thanks to Kogonada’s engaging presentation of the town’s architectural wonders, these character arcs and the soulful resonance of modern design prove all the more powerful.

Kogonada’s video essays further influence his films on the micro level, guiding what to focus his camera on and then how to focus on these items, what they signify, and the emotions that stem from them. Analyses of the significance of passageways to Ozu, hands to Robert Bresson, mirrors to Bergman, eyes to Alfred Hitchcock, and water and fire to Terrence Malick all inform Kogonada’s own attention to detail. But it’s his exploration of Hirokazu Kore-eda placing importance on everyday moments that seems to have had an even greater impact.

As Kogonada notes in his narration, Kore-eda’s films often involve “choosing the familiar over the fantastic,” and place an emphasis on “moments that often seem insignificant to the living.” The context of death, he adds, gives “these fleeting, everyday moments value.”

In After Yang, it’s only when Jake (Colin Farrell) is confronted with the likely loss of his malfunctioning, eponymous techno-sapien (Justin H. Min) that he more fully appreciates this android big brother for his adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). While exploring Yang’s stored memories from an extracted hard drive, Jake is deeply moved by the mundane yet beautiful imagery that Yang has chosen to keep. And in viewing Yang’s largely unexceptional recollections of Jake’s family and prior “lives,” Jake achieves a sense of closure that gives him the confidence to let go.

“The world is not simply some romantic postcard notion of life. It is difficult and sad; infused by death, it requires something from us,” Kogonada says in his Kore-eda narration, though he may as well be talking about his own films. “But the world is also full of everyday moments that mean something. Moments that connect us to one another. Moments that we’ll remember forever. Moments that might very well mean the world.”

Similar to Casey and Jin at the end of Columbus, Jake and his family feel more in tune with each other, themselves, and their surroundings by the end of After Yang. The characters from both films have experienced various forms of loss, but appear increasingly capable of facing the future than when we first met them. Their growth is emblematic of the “choice between escape or entrance” that Kogonada notes many of Kore-eda’s characters face, and the humans in both filmmakers’ works ultimately choose to engage.

And still, beyond these creative twists on the building blocks of the greats, Kogonada retains elements across his two films that have no clear analog in his academic studies. Dialogue often serves as a connective tissue between scenes, with a conversation beginning before its speakers are visible, and his characters are fond of walking among trees and engaging in somewhat impromptu dancing.

There’s also a distinct love of modernism that ties his films together. Even without design being the focus of After Yang, the architecture of its future Earth has much in common with the copious glass and appealing lines of the buildings in Columbus.

It all sounds like great fodder for a video essay.

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