Contrasts: End-of-Life Road Trip and Farm Life of a Korean-American Family

At the Movies

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(From left) Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth star in the elegiac “Supernova.” Photo: Bleecker Street

Supernova
An up-close-and-personal examination of dementia may not be everyone’s idea of a fun movie, but the new film “Supernova,” written and directed by Harry MacQueen, treats just that subject with such care, humor, nuance and taste that moviegoers will come away both moved and delighted – and newly thoughtful about end-of-life questions. It doesn’t hurt that the film is a brilliant acting pas de deux, starring Stanley Tucci (“Spotlight”) as Tusker, a writer in his 50s, the victim of early onset dementia, and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) as Sam, a concert pianist and Tusker’s partner of 20 years. (With a running time of 93 minutes; the film is rated R.)

Knowing Tusker’s diagnosis, the two agree to take a last road trip around England when they can, visiting family and past friends. Sam, who has put off his career to care for Tusker, does all the driving and heads for the Lake Country, where they can re-live memories of their life together in a kind of swan song. He even creates a useful excuse for the trip, booking a piano recital for himself at a town up north.

After 20 years, Sam and Tusker are as secure in their love as they have ever been, but in the two years since Tusker was diagnosed, their lives have had to change. As Tusker’s condition gradually worsens, Sam is forced to place his own life on hold and become his partner’s full-time caregiver. Their time together has been the essence of their lives, and this road trip takes on an extra emotional weight.

While Tusker had long been Sam’s rock, it now falls to Sam to take control, and he aims to offer his beloved partner as much normality and joy as he can muster. Meanwhile, Tusker knows that his condition is having an overwhelming effect on both their lives, and that he is beginning to lose control. As their trip progresses, in a somewhat battered van, their individual visions of a possible future together begin to collide. Past secrets surface, private plans crumble and their love for each other is tested anew.

Director MacQueen came up with the original story of “Supernova” after studying and researching dementia over three years, then added the gay relationship into his first outline. The casting was crucial, and he got the talent he wanted with Tucci and Firth.

MacQueen said he aimed to make an open-ended movie. “I’m not interested in making films that overtly tell you what to think,” he said in an interview. “I think that’s up to an audience to decide; the idea was to set up the fact that these are two people on a precipice, and this is the thing that’s pulling them apart. There are no ends tied up in the film, and it doesn’t become one thing or another. But hopefully we allow people to think more about how we treat one another, and how difficult it is to be put in this position.”

The final casting turned into a sort of kismet. Tucci, first on board, thought he would play Sam, but, after both men read the script, Firth felt that maybe he should be Sam and Tucci Tusker. Firth began to wonder if they should flip their roles, and Tucci had been having similar thoughts. “We each read each role for Harry [MacQueen], and we knew instantly that this was how it was supposed to be,” Tucci said. “I don’t know why, it just sat better this way.” Having themselves been close friends for 20 years, the two leads wove that personal rapport fully into their fine representations in “Supernova.”

(From left) Young David Yi (Alan Kim) helps his grandma (Youn Yuh-Jung) plant vegetables in “Minari.” Photo: A24 Pictures and Plan B

Minari
America, being an immigrant nation, has long featured immigrant stories and characters in its movies. The best combine a vision of an individual’s experience in adjusting to the US while also reflecting the universal experience of the ethnic group depicted. A recent example of that narrative comes with “Minari,” an ode to Korean-American adaptation to American life. (The film, now streaming through local outlets, is rated PG-13 and runs 115 minutes.)

The Yi family patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, David and Anne (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), leave life in California in the 1980s to follow Jacob’s dream of owning his own farm to grow Korean produce to sell to vendors in Texas. After he purchases a plot of land in rural Arkansas, he’s optimistic about the life ahead, especially for growing “minari” (dropwort), a green vegetable popular in Asia. Jacob does receive support from a kind Christian neighbor, Paul (Will Patton).

Monica is unhappy with their move, where all she can find is a grim job “sexing chickens” at a nearby hatchery, dead-end employment that she and Jacob take on for ready cash. Monica also worries about her son David’s heart condition. The marriage has become shaky, and the couple bickers often.

To watch the kids during the day, the Yis arrange for Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), to travel from Korea. The feisty grandma, who has an outspoken and profane manner, clashes with David, who is forced to share a bedroom with her and resents her presence on the farm. She struggles to adjust to American life and to a strange landscape and tries to help the household by taking the children to plant minari seeds by a nearby creek, hoping for a good crop and looking to bond with the children.

Unfortunately, hardships cascade on the Yis. A well that Jacob has dug runs dry, and he resents having to pay for county water, while Monica keeps urging a return to California. Then Soon-ja suffers a stroke overnight and, while she survives with medical care, she is left with impairments.

Finally, things take a more positive turn. On a medical trip to Oklahoma City without Soon-ja, the family learns that David’s heart condition has dramatically improved, while Jacob makes a deal to sell vegetables to a Korean grocer. But the couple still has issues and, after an argument, they agree to separate.

Back home, Soon-ja accidentally sets the barn containing their produce on fire. The family, just returning home, tries to contain the fire, but it grows out of control, and their barn is ruined. Then their luck turns again when Jacob and David return to the creek to find the minari has blossomed in the new soil, and the farmer realizes that Soon-ja knew just where to plant it.

Director-writer Lee Isaac Chung took elements of his own biography to create “Minari.” A son of Korean immigrants himself, he grew up in rural Arkansas, then studied at Yale University and the University of Utah film school and launched his first feature film in 2007. He has crafted this modest but fulfilling picture from local knowledge of the region, given it precise and careful pacing and imparted appropriate weight to each member of his ensemble.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.