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An interview with Kogonada

[FILMMAKER]

“I APPRECIATE A LOVE STORY THAT DOESN’T NECESSARILY CULMINATE IN GETTING WHAT YOU WANT, WHICH IS OFTEN THE CONSUMMATION OF ANOTHER.”

Things Kogonada would prefer to discuss instead of making small talk: 
The question of existence
What it means to be modern
All our choices

by Noah Pisner
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An interview with Kogonada

[FILMMAKER]

“I APPRECIATE A LOVE STORY THAT DOESN’T NECESSARILY CULMINATE IN GETTING WHAT YOU WANT, WHICH IS OFTEN THE CONSUMMATION OF ANOTHER.”

Things Kogonada would prefer to discuss instead of making small talk: 
The question of existence
What it means to be modern
All our choices

by Noah Pisner
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An interview with Kogonada

Noah Pisner
82 Snaps

People try to imitate success, not realizing that originality is often the soul of what makes something successful. To be an acolyte to an artist risks committing such a sin. And Kogonada is an acolyte of many: Ozu, Hitchcock, Godard, Malick, and Koreeda.

And yet Kogonada is entirely his own creation, not mimicking these precursors but responding to them. Famous first for his Criterion Collection “video essays” (a label he prefers over “supercuts”), then reborn as a feature filmmaker, Kogonada is a long-awaited voice for art-house cinema. His essays are visually seductive interpretations of the world’s greatest filmmakers’ films. They go viral. Maybe you’ve seen one. There’s the piece in which he pays tribute to Robert Bresson’s fascination with hand gestures. And there’s another in which he identifies “one-point perspective” in the work of Stanley Kubrick; about this video he has written: “Somewhere in this piece is an untenable theory about how this perspective is more than an aesthetic choice for Kubrick but a gateway to the meaning of life.”

These essays got attention from producers, who helped finance his first feature film, Columbus, which premiered at Sundance in 2017, found quiet success at the box office, and then showed up in award nominations and on top-ten lists. The conversation-led film, starring John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, is about architecture and what people owe one another, beautifully captured in the puzzling modernist mecca of Columbus, Indiana. 

Kogonada is a private person (“Kogonada” is a pseudonym borrowed from Yasujirō Ozu’s screenwriting partner). Profiles uniformly focus on him being a Korean-born American based in Nashville, who dropped out of a PhD program where he was writing a dissertation on Ozu. I first met Kogonada after Columbus’s Sundance premier. I met him again, three seasons later, in a West Village coffee shop. Kogonada spared me a full Saturday morning, and the most gracious attention.

—Noah Pisner

I. “THAT’S THE KIND OF CINEMA I’M LOOKING FOR—THE KIND THAT LETS YOU CHEAT ON LIFE.”

THE BELIEVER: If you could recommend a film to your younger self—a film you hadn’t seen at that age but that you’ve seen now—what film would you choose? And for what age?

KOGONADA: I wish I’d seen The 400 Blows earlier. For any serious film-watcher, there’s that first film you come across—something foreign or art-house—that has its own rules and tastes, and either you’re just revolted by it, you’re bored, or something about the difference captures you and you rethink film entirely. The 400 Blows did that for many, and maybe I wish I had seen it earlier. Like most teenagers, I experienced so much conflict, so much distraction, and what I found in The 400 Blows was this: it’s enough for a central character to be human. They don’t have to be a hero. They can be a human, and their journey can be really interior. A whole film could just be this very quiet struggle. That’ll settle you as a human being. Adolescence can be so unsettling.

BLVR: In your video essays, you often return to the running scene in The 400 Blows.

K: I have, yes. My love of cinema is maybe more annoying because it’s rather existential. Certain scenes have helped me work through different periods of my life. In a way, cinema is to me what architecture is to Casey [the protagonist of Columbus]. When Casey feels she’s suffocating, architecture allows her to gather a sense of life. I guess here’s your answer. Because it’s a great question. I think if a film had an effect, it was a good time to see it. The challenge is whether a film would’ve been wasted if I had seen it earlier.

BLVR: Favorite Hitchcock?

K: Notorious. Vertigo.

BLVR: Favorite Agnès Varda?

K: Cleo from 5 to 7. Close second: The Gleaners and I.

BLVR: Favorite Robert Altman?

K: Nashville. 3 Women.

BLVR: Favorite of the silent era?

K: I Was Born, But…; A Story of Floating Weeds; Dragnet Girl; Modern Times.

BLVR: Favorite Akira Kurosawa?

K: Rashomon. Madadayo.

BLVR: Second-favorite Godard?

K: Vivre sa vie. But that could be my first.

BLVR: Favorite character in an Ozu film?

K: Impossible.

BLVR: A not very well-known film you love?

K: Tony Takitani. Also, Irma Vep and Yi Yi, but they’re better known.

BLVR: Do you typically share your opinions of films with friends or family, or do you reveal criticism only in your work?

K: I keep things to myself. Also my circle of interaction is small these days. Mostly, it’s my wife and boys, and the last thing they need is me offering my opinions like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale: “That’s minor Pixar.”

BLVR: [Laughs] I remember that line. Jeff Daniels’s character tells his son that A Tale of Two Cities is “minor Dickens.” That hit home. This effort to rank every person and book and film so we won’t be associated with anything that could be called second-rate… I’m reluctant to condone any film rankings that claim any sort of categorical objectivity. I focus on what I find personally interesting or meaningful. I recognize that Vertigo is probably Hitchcock’s best work. But Rear Window remains my favorite. Modern Times is arguably Chaplin’s silent masterpiece. But I’d prefer to watch City Lights any day. I’ve asked you for your favorite films from a few filmmakers. I’m wondering how you chose them.

K: I’m mad at you. Not really. I would’ve passed on your request for my favorites, but I didn’t want to be difficult. But, see, you probably would’ve understood. I tried not to think about it too much. I definitely didn’t burden myself with what I thought was “best” objectively, which would’ve been part delusion and part arrogance. Nowadays, I value the films that have stayed with me the longest, whether or not I thought they were great when I saw them.

BLVR: After seeing an impactful film, do you take time to digest it before engaging with another narrative?

K: A good film will stay with me whether I designate a period of reflection or not. If it’s good, during a quiet moment, it’ll come back. The aftertaste of a film is really all-important. There are certain films where walking out I was like, Eh, but then the next morning it’s still there. And that forces me to reevaluate. That was my experience with Ozu. I wasn’t initially impressed with Good Morning, the first film I saw by Ozu. It seemed a little strange and silly but not explicitly. Not like John Waters or David Lynch. Really, it seemed like nothing at all. And yet it stayed with me for days and weeks… That’s the kind of cinema I’m looking for, the kind that lets you cheat on life. It’s not your memory, but it has the shape of a memory, and becomes part of you like the memories of your own life. For me, the best of that kind of cinema deepens you, or hopefully sensitizes you. If [the films] are somehow able to infiltrate your own memory, to become a part of your own timeline, then it’s a gift.

BLVR: I don’t think films change you so much as they reveal yourself back to yourself. Like there’s something you knew intuitively, but you didn’t have a language to communicate it in. And then there it is, being expressed to you, and suddenly you see yourself in a way you previously hadn’t.

K: So then it does change you.

II. MEDIUM TALK

BLVR: I can’t remember the writer who said—offhandedly, I think—that he wasn’t good at small talk, but he also wasn’t good at big talk. What he was good at, he said, was medium talk. Which, when I think about Columbus, I think the conversations between Jin and Casey really embody that idea of medium talk. They’re not superficial. But they also don’t get lost in the hyper-academic. They hover in between, revealing depth through common conversations.

K: I’m going to bring that quote home to my wife. I feel so much more comfortable with medium talk.

BLVR: You’ve anticipated my question, which is what kind of conversations engage you most?

K: [Laughs] For me, it’s the pursuit of something. Like really genuinely trying to get to the bottom of something. A conversation between two people who already feel certain of their views are less interesting. There is something about a question that requires you to be in pursuit. It’s movement. I find it hard to navigate small talk. Those kinds of conversations drain me. I do want something deeper, and I almost feel apologetic for it. The question of existence, and why am I here, and what does it mean to be modern, and all of our choices. Those are constantly fascinating to me. Is it pretentious to ask those questions? I don’t know. But I’m genuinely interested in the answers—or in pursuing them. And every human is also an ongoing mystery. As many years as I may know my close friends or my wife, as much as I feel that there’s no other question to ask… It’s like, my wife is changing every day. And I need to stay interested. I can’t be so arrogant to believe that I’ve got anyone figured out.

BLVR: In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy’s character describes the art of getting to know someone as the pursuit of a depth that’s forever elusive. What’s important, she says, is the attempt.

K: That’s right. That’s right. And I love the attempt. And Linklater’s films are populated with people with those kinds of questions. They want conversations to matter. They care. In an era of cynicism, sincerity is often made suspect. We find safety in irony.

III. NOT ROMANTIC, FRATERNAL, FILIAL, OR PLATONIC

BLVR: May I recite a Miyazaki quote?

K: Please.

BLVR: “I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live—if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.” Looking at Columbus, and the relationship between your two leads, it’s kind of exactly that. A lot of filmmakers would’ve pushed for something romantic between Jin and Casey. They do love each other, but it’s not a love we typically see in film. It’s not romantic, nor is it fraternal, nor filial, nor even classically platonic. It’s something else, something that reminds us that love doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, that it can be transient, that nonphysical love is valid and important. That’s how I’d describe it, anyway. How do you?

K: I’ve never heard that from Miyazaki, but it resonates. And your description of Jin and Casey’s relationship—thank you. It’s so nicely put. What it isn’t. What it still is. I’m not sure how conscious I was in trying to define the parameters of their relationship. There is something about its transience. We often think of love as being eternal, at least in its ideal form, but I wonder… Is it possible to have transitory soulmates? A connection defined by temporality? If we feel affection, we’ve been cultivated to believe that it has to culminate in something physical or has to fit some projected idea of romance. But there’s beauty in the connection itself: where you feel lonely and then you suddenly engage with a person who resonates; they’ve been asking the same questions you’ve been asking. After Haley Lu [Richardson] first read the script, she went through every page and she said, “Please, please don’t cross this line.” Like Haley, you’re rooting that they’ll protect something—friendship, maybe. But whatever it is, I’m invested in that kind of love. I recently asked my boys one morning: “What is love?” My oldest answered, “A potato.” My youngest said, “Ethereal.” I was surprised and delighted by that answer. “Why ethereal?” I asked. He looked at me funny and then clarified, “Cereal.” Oh. I should note that I made them breakfast soon after.

BLVR: I’m going to ask for your favorites again. What are some love stories you love?

K: Well, Ozu’s films are complicated love stories centered on family in the context of a modern world. But I suppose the most romantic of my favorite films would be In the Mood for Love, which is probably the best example of the not exactly romantic but deeply romantic films that move me. I appreciate a love story that doesn’t necessarily culminate in getting what you want, which is often the consummation of another. I’m moved by sacrifice if it has agency. That is, not restraint because some oppressive culture or authority figure demands it, but restraint that is also paradoxically passionate, restraint for the sake of love. It’s hard to articulate, but maybe it’s like “potato” and “cereal.”

BLVR: I feel like depictions of solitude are increasingly rare in cinema, and yet there was a lot of solitude portrayed in Columbus. How do you direct solitude? How do you direct an actor when nothing’s being said, when someone is by themselves in between actions, maybe even in between thoughts?

K: It’s something we talked about quite a bit. Whatever power exists in those kinds of scenes really comes down to the actor. The actor has to have a certain kind of presence in the quiet. I had those conversations with John [Cho] and Haley Lu. I said, “This film is going to be very naked. There’s not going to be a lot of places to hide. There’s not a lot of plot. And shots are going to be wide. You’re going to have this weight of being present.” Even before we shot, we talked about this quietness and presence and the film resting on their ability to have that.

BLVR: Did you tell John and Haley Lu what to think about? Or is that something you had them construct for themselves?

K: The biggest thing I learned in making Columbus was just how much of a craft acting is. I’ve thought quite a bit about form and cinema. I’ve thought a lot about editing. But I hadn’t had experience working with actors at this level. They were magic to me. You see all these little decisions that they’re making in the moment. Like with John and the closet. I just said, “Here’s the camera, here’s a hat, here’s a thing.” And right there, he created history and longing and this sort of movement. I can’t take credit for that. It is their medium and they knew their task was to be present. One of the first things John said to me when we were discussing the role of Jin was his desire to explore quiet. He was eager to embrace these moments. And Haley Lu—she embodied Casey to such a degree that her presence was always more than enough. She felt so emotively connected to Casey. She actually had to fight against that a little bit. Because Casey has always protected herself. When the tear rolls out of her, it’s against her will. She’s trying not to cry in those moments. She carried it all during the shoot. She is the absolute soul of this film. And if she is the soul, Parker [Posey] is the force.

BLVR: Seeing Parker Posey after the premier was, hands down, the most starstruck I’ve ever been. I was a puddle.

K: John still talks about working with Parker and all the choices she was making. She heightens awareness. Everyone is suddenly on their toes. I’ve accused her of being a performance artist who acts in between performances. She makes you feel like you’re in a scene in her life, and it’s remarkable. I don’t know how she does it. She would just take it in all sorts of directions. There’s a take you’ll never see where she decides to kick John. If you ask, he’ll say he can still feel her foot on his back.

BLVR: Did directing come pretty naturally to you?

K: It did. I mean, I’ve always thought a lot about why certain decisions are made. When it comes to design and aesthetics, those things matter to me at a very meticulous level. One of the things you realize when directing is that you’re constantly being asked to make decisions. For me, it was a kind of pleasure… to have an outlet for all these ideas and considerations. And working with actors was so much more satisfying than I imagined. Going to back to the idea of good conversations, actors—or at least the actors in this film—are pursuing what it means to be human. I found our conversations to be so enriching, not only in regards to the film but to life itself. My conversations with my cast were amazing. My first conversation with Haley Lu went on for three or four hours.

BLVR: What did you talk about?

K: Everything. She is, to me, a true artist who doesn’t know she’s a true artist. She is, to bring the word up again, the opposite of pretentious. She would be the last person to call herself an artist. She’s full of a certain kind of joy. I mean, she can’t doodle without making something beautiful. She’s really great at painting, at drawing. She knits clothes without any patterns. She’ll just have something in her head. Like most people, if I had all of those abilities, I might have to wear a beret and make sure people notice I can do all of these things. She doesn’t. It really genuinely seems like it’s something she’s trying to make part of her identity; it’s just her DNA. She and her family watched [Ozu’s] Tokyo Story on their own. I think they saw some of my other work. She’s a real daughter-daughter. She’s an only daughter. And after watching Tokyo Story she was just like, “All I want to do is be a better daughter.” But I mean, that kind of conversation happened with all of them—Rory [Culkin], Parker, John, Michelle [Forbes]. It started with good conversation.

BLVR: What are you struggling with intellectually, artistically, at the moment?

K: There’s this real practical burden of what’s next for me. I have a family, and I need to make a living. I also care deeply about cinema. I want to make what I’d want to see—what I’d want to exist in this world. I’m still trying to figure this out. Getting a chance to make a feature film has been humbling. It’s one thing to theorize about and critique cinema from a distance; it’s another to engage the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from financing to distribution. But to be clear, it’s not my desire to make work that’s inaccessible. I hope that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. The thing I like about Ozu is that he is, to me, really accessible. Whereas someone like Godard, especially late Godard, requires a lot of prior knowledge—of politics, of philosophy, of cinema—which can be incredibly stimulating but also exclusive. With Ozu, the only thing that might be required is our patience. And that’s just really about being able to find and accept his rhythm.

BLVR: Ozu is famous for his use of ellipses. The wedding is not shown in An Autumn Afternoon. The spa sequence is glossed over in Tokyo Story. Ozu trusts that his audience can fill in the blanks. What are your favorite examples of ellipses in films—Ozu’s or otherwise?

K: Well, I mean, there’s so many, but…

BLVR: But?

K: Agh, apologies, that was very nerdy and something no one will get—and shouldn’t get. But I was alluding to Ozu’s use of ellipses in his silent-era titles: I Graduated, But…; I Flunked, But… ; I Was Born, But… Anyway, I personally love and believe in the ellipsis because…

IV. TOFU AND CAKE

BLVR: I had a film professor, a Hitchcock scholar, who said that every Hitchcock film is the same film, made again in a slightly different, hopefully more perfect way. Ozu said something similar about his own work: that he was painting the same rose over and over. Do you believe that achieving something masterful requires many iterations of singular focus?

K: This goes back to your earlier conversation about good conversation. Again, it’s all about the pursuit of something. There are highly skilled technicians who can make any kind of film. Give them a script and they will change style and form to fit the content. And that’s fine and acceptable. They don’t necessarily obsess over form. But directors that obsessively return to a distinct form and approach, they’re engaging in a larger conversation, a larger pursuit, whether they know it or not, which interests me a great deal. I’ve actually wanted to make a feature-length essay on Hitchcock and Ozu because Hitchcock used to say that all he wants to do is make a slice of cake. That film should be like a slice of cake. A treat. And he always gives this story about a mother who has to wash dishes, and how the last thing she wants to do is go to the movie theater and watch a movie of a woman washing dishes. This was his reaction to neorealism. He just wanted to make a slice of cake. Of course, what Ozu famously said was that he wanted to make tofu. They both made films on their own empirical islands: one was Japan, one was England. And they both started in the silent era. In the last Sight & Sound poll [of the greatest directors] they’re ranked one and four. And I just think it’s fascinating. They were both obsessed in their own ways. But whereas Hitchcock wanted to make cake, something that would shock us outside of the mundanity of life, Ozu wanted to make tofu—the opposite of cake, something bland. I’d love to make that film. I’d call it Cake and Tofu.

BLVR: Ozu was particularly interested in the feelings and tones of individual seasons. Do you have a favorite season?

K: Autumn, for as long as I can remember.

BLVR: Why autumn?

K: Well, as a kid, it was about the explosion of colors, and football, and Charlie Brown specials, and the weather, and the mood, and the coming of the holidays. Later it was about the nostalgia of those feelings but also a tangible sense of things coming to an end, the beauty and necessity of it. I feel a connection to trees. I’ve never articulated that, but I do. Trees have always been something I’ve noticed and considered. I used to draw trees all the time. I don’t know why. Maybe it was The Giving Tree book. Or Charlie Brown’s battle with trees snagging his kite. Or my leaf collection for school (the assignment I remember most from my K through 12 experience). Or the patch of woods in our backyard that I used to explore for hours. I climbed trees. I imagined them coming to life. I had epic sword duels with their branches. So, yeah, I took notice when their leaves turned and fell to the ground. You know, I’m realizing that maybe it was Charlie Brown. Maybe he’s the reason. I’m just now recalling a strip of him noticing a leaf falling to the ground and feeling sad because of it. Maybe it’s all Charlie Brown’s fault.

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