Classic Film Review: Long before “Minari,” Lee Isaac Chung went to Rwanda for “Munyurangabo” (2007)

You can see some of the themes and interests of future Oscar-nominated writer-director (“Minari”) Lee Isaac Chung in his debut feature, a quiet immersion in the open wound that is post-genocide Rwanda.

A film festival darling of 2007, “Munyurangabo” takes us on an understated but fraught journey, a young Tutsi man’s quest for revenge on the Hutu who murdered his father. Along the way, he finds himself ensnared in the touch-and-go “embrace” of his best friend’s Hutu family, which can’t set aside its prejudices, testing the friendship on this already tense quest.

Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), who mercifully goes by “Ngabo,” is a tall, thin street vendor-hustler in Kigali, sharing the work and the profits of their sales with his pal Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye).

One day, Ngabo swipes a machete from a stall in the street market where they work. It’s a totem of obvious power for this haunted young man, and that isn’t lost on us either. This cheap (Chinese) import was the weapon of choice in the 1994 blood-letting Hutu nationalists unleashed on the Tsutsi minority, with some 800,000 people murdered.

One of those killed in that way was Ngabo’s father. Without a lot of overt discussion, he decides he now has his mission. He’s going back to where his father was killed and avenge himself on the man he knows killed him.

Sangwa goes along, and as he’s the one who takes most of the money and gets the backpack they’ll need for the journey, he’s key to Ngabo’s plans.

But first, they’ll hitchhike to Sangwa’s village. He left his family three years before. When they get there, we see why. His mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) welcomes their prodigal son with open arms, hand-feeding him as if the teen was still a small child. But Sangwa’s father (Eric Ndorunkundiye) isn’t so welcoming. He shames the boy for leaving.

“And who is this you’ve brought with you,” he wants to know (in Kinyarwanda with English subtitles)?

Dad warily eyes the “sad-looking” Ngabo, eventually questioning him. Mom declines to share the family meals with him. Their son’s friend doesn’t put much effort into helping hoe the family’s fields, and when he’s confronted, we see him nervously fondling the machete handle.

As a short visit stretches to days, Ngabo and the father keep us on edge, and Ngabo’s impatience with his sentimental, homesick friend grows so much that he says the quiet part out loud.

“Did you forget we’re on our way to kill a man??”

Chung, working with Rwandan film students, lets us see early glimpses of what would become his style — long stretches when images alone, and subtle performances, do all the storytelling for him.

There’s a jarring long poem recited by a man (Edouard B. Uwayo) who sizes Ngabo up and seems to guess his quest, a poem that sums up Rwanda’s horror and shame in explicit ways the film generally avoids.

Chung goes to such effort to avoid melodrama — predictable, artificial or over-the-top confrontations — that “Munyurangabo” never alters its sedate, almost somnambular pacing. That’s a gripe I had with “Minari” as well, even though the Oscar-nominated drama has many more incidents and more standard issue dramatic moments.

But this debut feature shows the promise that “Minari” realized and is certainly worth checking out. Just as we’ve seen precious few movies about the Korean immigrant experience in rural America, there haven’t been many movies at all about the reconciled and unreconciled people and strife of Rwanda.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Jeff Rutagengwa, Eric Ndorunkundiye, Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka, Narcicia Nyirabucyeye and Edouard B. Uwayo

Credits: Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, scripted by Samuel Anderson and Lee Isaac Chung. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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