There’s a patient attentiveness and inquisitiveness to Munyurangabo that seemingly springs, at least in part, from the cultural divide between Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung and his native Rwandan cast, milieu, and language (Kinya-rwanda). Intense empathy courses throughout Chung’s first feature, but more remarkable is his ability to foster great kinship between viewer and subject, his largely handheld cinematography generating forceful intimacy with his story’s two teenage protagonists, Munyurangabo (Rutagengwa Jeff) and Sangwa (Dorunkundiye Eric), as well as a tactile sense of environment. Both qualities run deep in this piercing, authentic, and condescension-free tale, in which Munyurangabo embarks on a journey with his friend to kill the man who murdered his father. Along the way, they make a pit-stop at Sangwa’s family home—a tense place Sangwa abandoned three years prior due to paternal friction—that soon becomes an extended stay which ignites ethnic discord and strains their friendship.
Key details such as the two protagonists’ tribal affiliation, their journey’s nominal motives, and their shared, consuming desire to confront and reconcile with their pasts are all allowed to trickle out gradually from the moment-to-moment action. It’s a storytelling subtlety also found in Jeff’s portrait of Munyurangabo’s brotherly bond with, growing jealousy of, and resentment toward his close comrade, which swells underneath a demeanor as still and quiet—and yet also as fundamentally volatile—as his rural surroundings. Actual survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide whose experiences have been integrated into Chung’s improvised script, Munyurangabo‘s nonprofessional stars have an artless hauntedness about them. Chung conveys their estrangement (from family, country, history, and eventually each other) through an entrancing mixture of naturalistic sound design and expert compositional construction, the director using both constricting architectural framing and wide-open spaces—not to mention habitually having people suddenly abandon others on screen—to express inescapable isolation.
Nonetheless, it’s the film’s emotional closeness to these two young men, communicated both via cinematographic proximity as well as the narrative’s concentration on their tormented condition, that leaves a gut-wrenching impression, with the sight of their hands and feet packing mud to be used to solidify a house’s crumbling wall, or a conversation in which the camera assumes the position of the listening party, providing a clear window into their beleaguered hearts and minds. Upon reaching his destination, Munyurangabo meets a man who recites (in a fierce single take) a from-the-gut poetic lament for the past and plea for the future. It’s a verse that leads Munyurangabo to question his vengeful aims, though as befitting a film so thoughtfully attuned to the country’s divisive personal and social conflicts, any measure of optimism is ultimately tempered by the understanding that, 14 years after the genocide’s end, Rwanda remains an open wound.