Review: Lee Isaac Chung’s “Munyurangabo”

A near-classic work of cinematic and cultural alchemy, Munyurangabo is not only the stunning debut of a major talent, but also an expressively beautiful vessel where the voice and experiences of a people scarred by genocide, poverty, and ethnic warfare is given shape through a sensitive outsider who uses these materials to create a work of art that is transformative for both its creators and its viewers. In a similar process recalling Dave Eggers’ novel What Is the What, which related the experiences of a refugee who survived the genocide in Sudan, Korean-American Chung, along with collaborators Samuel Anderson and Jenny Lund, improvised this film with his cast, all of whom experienced the Rwandan civil war first hand, losing family members and struggling with the impoverished aftermath. Opening with a quote from the book of Isaiah, this film in its basic outline is a revenge story with biblical overtones. Also, with its rural setting, and many shots of characters framed though doorways, there is more than a hint of John Ford’s westerns.

Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) is on a mission to avenge his father’s death by searching for, and murdering his father’s killer. He is accompanied by his close friend Sangwa (Eric Dorunkundiye), who is seeking to reunite with the family he left behind three years earlier, and especially to repair his strained relationship with his father (Jean Marie Nkurikiyinka). Sangwa’s desire to reconnect with his home life immediately clashes with Munyurangabo’s single-minded desire for revenge. He is also more than a little envious of Sangwa’s intact family, since he was orphaned because of the war. Also complicating matters, and creating considerable strife in the village, are the two friends’ ethnicities: Munyurangabo is a Tutsi and Sangwa is a Hutu, each an opposite member of the warring tribes of Rwanda’s civil war. Instead of their friendship being regarded as an example of reconciliation, their relationship is looked on with hostility and suspicion, especially by Sangwa’s father, who angrily admonishes his son: “Don’t you know we’re enemies?” Munyurangabo eventually leaves the village, determined to carry out his revenge, where he meets a poet (Uwayo B. Edouard), who delivers the most moving moment of the film, where he recites directly to the camera a long lament for Rwanda’s violent history. Thereafter this revenge story is transformed into something very different from what it was when it began, as is evident during the film’s lyrical final scenes. Munyurangabo’s experience at this point parallels that of another cinematic character out for revenge: Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers. Chung’s unerring eye for the perfect visual and musical accompaniment to his narrative, as well as the impressive and truly authentic performances by his cast, come together to create an experience that is truly original and lingers long in the memory.