Like a bolt out of the blue, Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung achieves an astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut with “Liberation Day,” which is — by several light years — the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda. Pic’s supremely confident, simple storytelling and relaxed, slightly impressionist visual style follow a conflict that emerges between two friends as one makes a long-delayed homecoming. This is, flat-out, the discovery of this year’s Un Certain Regard batch, and deserves loving care from arthouse distribs after a liberating and fruitful fest tour.
Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) — short for the great ancient Rwandan warrior Munyurangabo — scrambles to make a living in the Rwandan capital of Kigali along with buddy Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye). He’s first seen stealing a machete from a marketplace, and soon, the pair is on the road to an unspecified destination.
En route, Sangwa decides to stop in his rural village and visit his parents, who haven’t seen him in three years and waste no time reminding him of that fact. Sangwa feels abashed, and though his loving mother (Narcicia Nyirabucyeye) hugs and feeds him, his father (Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyinka) quietly but severely scolds him.
The weight of shame and guilt compel Sangwa to stay to help in the fields and repair a brick wall. His father warms to his efforts, but is wary of outsider Ngabo.
Soon, Ngabo loses patience and reminds Sangwa (and reveals to the viewer for the first time) that their mission is to return to Ngabo’s village so he can kill a man. This bit of plot will recall Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Daratt” for some viewers, but where the revenge motif was that pic’s centerpiece, Chung and co-writer Samuel Anderson introduce Ngabo’s intentions with subtle and surprising effect, allowing it to gradually build to a remarkable third-act payoff.
Ngabo may harbor murderous thoughts, but his account of losing his father in the genocide (and all memory of his father’s face, since his mother destroyed the only photo of him) makes him a sympathetic if flawed character. Once Sangwa’s father finds out Ngabo is Tutsi (the group which warred with the Hutus during the genocide) and learns of Ngabo’s plans, his banishes Sangwa from his home.
The moment of banishment is a most moving and tragic domestic scene. Chung shows his stripes as a director in the manner that he extends the pathos of this scene with one involving Sangwa and Ngabo back out on the road.
There’s little to prepare Ngabo or auds for what follows: an encounter with a poet (Edouard B. Uwayo, Rwanda’s actual poet laureate), who recites his poem of peace and reconciliation, “Liberation Is a Journey,” to Ngabo when he spies the lad’s machete.
Poem is brilliantly performed and staged in direct address. Denouement is humanist cinema at its least preachy and most sublime.
The sheer confidence and artistic will that 28-year-old Chung exercises here can’t be overstated, especially in contrast to the few short films of little note he made during his brief stint as a Yale film student, and the fact he wasn’t planning to make a feature while he was teaching at a Christian relief camp in Rwanda.
The narrative and dialogue arose entirely out of the circumstances Chung and Anderson observed. They cast at-risk kids like Rutagengwa and Ndorunkundiye — both magnificent in their roles, along with Nkurikiyinka as the father — and relied on a form of improvisation that never feels sloppy or loose on screen.
Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of “Liberation Day” is that it always feels thoroughly African in attitude and approach, coming from an American director of Korean ancestry.
Free of any mannerism or displays of bravura, the filmmaking is strongly informed with a sense of poetry, cinematic sophistication and a desire to allow scenes to play out fully, but no longer than they must.
Chung’s vid cinematography shuns pretty pictures — all too easy in the splendid forests of Rwanda — and adds a texture to the image that resembles 16mm, while his editing is sparked by jump-cutting and an easy grasp of pacing. A passage narrated by Ngabo and overlaid with a Ravel piano piece is one example of an artistic stroke added at precisely the right moment. Press material claims this is the first feature shot in the Kinyarwanda language.