Shout Out

Thanks to Shift747 for pointing this out to me — a nice article about Lee Isaac Chung, a fellow Korean American filmmaker who’s film “Munyurangabo” is (has?) screened at the New Directors / New Films Series in New York this year.

I met Isaac briefly in Pusan and he seemed like a really nice guy. Before that he had actually written me here on xanga (though I can’t seem to remember what his screename is). Regardless, you should check his work out. I think he is going to be huge.

From the New York Times:

Rwanda, Speaking in Its Own Voice

IT is safe to say that when
most American filmmakers think about the global reach of their movies,
they are not considering the concept in quite the same way as Lee Isaac
Chung, whose first feature, “Munyurangabo,” happens also to be the first narrative feature made in Rwanda’s native language of Kinyarwanda.

“I know this sounds idealistic, but it was a conscious decision to
make a film for and about Rwandans,” Mr. Chung, 29, said in an
interview last spring during the Cannes Film Festival,
where his film had its premiere. “It was definitely not a practical
decision,” he added, referring to the challenge of making a movie in a
country he had never visited and where he did not speak the language.
“But since it was our first film, we thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

A few years ago Mr. Chung’s wife, Valerie, an art therapist who had
traveled to Rwanda as a volunteer to help those affected by the 1994
genocide, urged him to accompany her. He signed on to teach a
filmmaking class at a Christian relief base in Kigali, the Rwandan
capital, in the summer of 2006.

Sensing an opportunity to make a movie that presents the country as
it is now, not simply as a historical site of atrocity, he arrived with
a nine-page outline — the story of two teenage boys and the
single-minded quest that comes between them — which he had written with
the help of Samuel Anderson, an old friend. He shot “Munyurangabo” at
the end of his trip, over 11 days, working with nonprofessional actors
he found through local orphanages and using a few of his students as
crew members.

The day after his film’s premiere, sitting with a few of his actors
in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Cannes, Mr. Chung seemed a little
stunned that his intimate, micro-budget film had brought him to such
glamorous surroundings. He had submitted it to the festival “blind and
right on deadline,” he said. “I don’t know that we had any expectations
while shooting. We weren’t thinking about it in terms of careers.”

Writing in Variety, the critic Robert Koehler called “Munyurangabo”
the discovery of the Un Certain Regard section. The film is still
without a United States distributor, but it has since played at more
than a dozen festivals, including those in Toronto and Berlin and at
the AFI Fest in Los Angeles (where it won the top prize), and it will
screen in New York this week as part of the New Directors/New Films
series, which begins on Wednesday. ( It is showing at the Walter Reade
Theater on Thursday and at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday.)

On paper the production of “Munyurangabo” — the title is the name of
one of the characters and of an ancient Rwandan warrior — would seem to
have been facing a thicket of cultural and linguistic barriers, but the
filmmakers made the most of the situation by soliciting the input of
the cast. “We had to leave it very open,” said Mr. Anderson, who was in
Rwanda for the filming. “Sometimes we would just ask: ‘Does this seem
realistic?’ ‘What would someone do in this situation?’ It helped that
our translator had a great ear for the subtleties of language.”

Mr. Chung also served as cinematographer and editor. He shot with an
old mechanical camera on super-16-millimeter film, “for aesthetic
reasons” but also because of concerns over the erratic power supply in
Rwanda, which would make lighting and working with a digital camera
difficult. This made for a harrowing return trip, since airport
security “kept trying to put the film through the X-ray machine,” he
said. On the set the biggest glitch came midway through the shooting
when one of the actors shaved his head, forcing the production to take
a five-day break while his hair grew back.

Unlike the bigger-budget Rwanda-themed films of recent years — “Hotel Rwanda,” “Sometimes in April,” “Beyond the Gates”
— “Munyurangabo” does not explicitly revisit the 1994 slaughter of
Tutsis by extremist Hutus. It is instead a quiet accounting of the
aftermath, tracing the ripple effects as they are felt among friends
and within households, setting the thirst for vengeance against the
possibility of reconciliation.

And unlike most movies set in strife-torn faraway lands and made by
American or European directors, “Munyurangabo” declines to provide the
requisite surrogate figure — usually a noble do-gooder — for the
Western audience. The desire to remove the presence, and even the
perspective, of the outsider-observer was “partially a test,” Mr. Chung
said, “to see if we could bridge gaps between cultures.”

Questions of identity and belonging have fascinated and flummoxed
Mr. Chung for much of his life. He was born in Colorado a year after
his parents emigrated from Korea, and he grew up in rural Arkansas. (He
now lives in Brooklyn.) “I’ve never felt completely American,” he said.
“Growing up where I was, there were no Asians, no minorities, and there
was always something to remind me of what I’m not. And when I go to
Korea it’s the same thing. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not

This sense of placelessness lies at the heart of “Munyurangabo.” “I
wanted to make something that transcends borders and gets beyond this
feeling of national identity,” Mr. Chung said recently over drinks in
Brooklyn. It is a sentiment that links his film with the recent work of
Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), So Yong Kim (“In Between Days”) and Lance Hammer (“Ballast,”
also screening at New Directors/New Films). All are adventurous young
American directors who represent a break from the domestic indie
tradition, drawing instead from the humanist, neorealist school and
contemporary descendants like Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Belgium’s Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

Mr. Chung discovered these filmmakers, as well as other world-cinema touchstones like Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky,
while studying biology at Yale. The next step would have been medical
school, but he was so smitten with movies by his senior year that he
chose to pursue a graduate film degree at the University of Utah.
As a student Mr. Chung “had the uncanny ability to absorb and replicate
the style of his favorite filmmakers,” said Kevin Hanson, chairman of
the film department at the University of Utah. “When he settled into
his own work, this paid off big for him.”

Mr. Chung and Mr. Anderson are looking closer to home for their next
project, “Lucky Life,” a drama about friendship and mortality inspired
by a poem by Gerald Stern,
the onetime poet laureate of New Jersey. “It’s a film about
disillusionment as a positive force,” Mr. Chung said. “Munyurangabo”
was self-financed, but the financing for the new film, which will
probably be a Korean co-production, is already largely in place. Mr.
Chung acknowledged that the festival success of “Munyurangabo,” while a
boon, has occasionally left him uncomfortable.

“There are times I’ve almost felt colonialist about it,” he said,
referring to the awkward position of being an American effectively
representing Rwanda on the international festival circuit. “Getting
into Cannes and getting recognition only compounded the feeling. I’ve
been talking about cinema about and by Rwandans, and I still want that
to happen, but I know that’s not what we did with this film.”

Lack of infrastructure remains a major impediment to the growth of
Rwandan film culture. There are only two theaters in the country, Mr.
Chung said, which cater mainly to expatriates. “Munyurangabo” has yet
to play in Rwanda, though a screening is planned for this year. Mr.
Chung is also returning this summer, as he did last summer, to teach
and work toward the establishment of a film school.

There are already signs of progress. A few of his students have just
finished their own film, Mr. Chung said. He hasn’t seen it, but he does
know one thing: “They’re submitting it to Cannes.”


2 thoughts on “

  1. For those in NYC, it’s playing Saturday afternoon @ 2:30 at the MOMA.  My company ‘BofA’ has a corp membership and I can get 5 tix free.  You guys may want to look into similar programs.  Btw, if you pay the MOMA admission, the films are free.

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