Directed by: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Jeff Rutagengwa, Eric Ndorunkundiye, Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka, Jean Pierre Harerimana
Shot in two weeks in Rwanda by a 30-year-old Korean American, Lee Isaac Chung, Munyrangabo (2007) is by all rights one of those films that seemingly shouldn’t work. But strangely, this tale of two adolescent boys and their journey through Rwanda does work—in ways that more slickly produced films often don’t. I do, however, want to make it clear from the onset that I do not think Munyurangabo is anything like the masterpiece it’s been painted as in some quarters, nor do I think it’s a film that will have the staying power of a classic (and, yes, I am looking at you, Mr. Ebert).
It’s the kind of movie that tends to get overpraised by critics for things that are perhaps more circumstantial than inspired. That it’s been compared to Italian neorealist cinema is telling—and apt—since that was a movement in film born fully as much of necessity as any aesthetic consideration. Similarly, Munyurangabo has every appearance of being made in its minimalist style owing to budgetary and time constraints. In other words, I’m not convinced—no matter how well the film works—that this is anything like the film Chung would have made with more resources at his disposal.
Those considerations apart, Chung’s film is a remarkable work that manages to say much without directly seeming to say very much at all. On the surface, it’s the simple story of a pair of adolescent boys on a journey from the city back to the countryside from which they came. As it turns out, the two friends happen to represent the two divisions of the country of Rwanda and function as symbolic of that divide—even though they’re joined in a single pursuit driven by a child’s understanding—or lack thereof—of the dynamics of that division and that one of them is assisting in a revenge scheme against one of his own people. It’s a quiet and quietly persuasive examination of the way in which the hatred of bigotry is a learned trait.
The downside of the approach is that the film tends to be a little slow moving, especially in its middle section. However, it more than redeems itself in its complex last act, which tackles the big questions of vengeance, humanity, forgiveness and reconciliation in ways that I freely admit I’ve never seen before. For that alone, Munyurangabo is a film very much worth giving a look.
Classic Cinema From Around the World will present Munyurangabo at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St., in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.