ISAAC CHUNG

Last Updated: November 18, 2007By Tags:

(BY ALI NADERZAD) I recently caught up with filmmaker Isaac Chung, a young filmmaker whose film Munyurangabo, a vital and poetic tale of exile and shattered family life set against the Rwandan civil war got selected as part of the Cannes Festival’s Un Certain Regard program last year. Critics widely lauded it for its penetrating examination of a conflict which has resonated only mildly with most Americans.

Ali Naderzad- Robert Koehler of Variety has said that, ‘perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of Munyurangabo is that it always feels thoroughly African in attitude and approach, coming from an American director of Korean ancestry.’ How do you think you were able to accomplish this in so genuine a manner?
Isaac Chung- Any critical stance that this film feels African does not necessarily mean that it is. We’re encouraged by the times that we have screened this film to Rwandan audiences, since the reactions have been rather positive. Our intention from the beginning was to create a film for the Rwandan people, for their audiences and even, as something that they could own for themselves. This is not an easy task, and I wouldn’t say that we’ve accomplished it.

AN- What’s Munyurangabo’s potential to trigger a change in our perceptions?
IC- Through the process of making the film and through my friendships there, I’ve come to the belief that the best approach is to allow Rwandans to make their own films, that all of the resources we Westerners spend making films in Africa might be better spent ameliorating their own film industry. I think this provides for the greatest empowerment while diminishing our own advantages of power and resources that we constantly exert over the continent.

AN- Can you describe how Munyurangabo got selected at Cannes?

IC- I submitted this film blindly to the festival with great skepticism that it would ever get in. I also didn’t manage to ship the film until the day of the deadline, so that added to the doubts. After a month, I got a call from the Cannes film department that we’d been selected; I was in the waiting room of a hospital, waiting to get some shots. After the appointment, I had to check my phone log to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating from the medicine–I’m not making this up, I was honestly that surprised. I didn’t hear back from Cannes for the next four days, so you can imagine how nervous I was that I might have heard the news incorrectly.

AN- Describe your background; were you born in the US, and if not,

when did you emigrate to the States?
IC- I was born in Denver and grew up on a small farm in Arkansas, a rural community where I was the only minority. Our household was very conservative in maintaining a Korean identity; we spoke Korean in the home and followed the customs. It was almost the feeling of living in Korea at night and going to school in America during the day. I don’t always see myself as completely American or Korean, and the idea of nationalism eludes me. I might contradict myself here, but the concept of Asian-American identity is also distant for me; I can sometimes see myself as American or Korean, not often anything in between. I’m not sure how this affects my filmmaking, exactly, but working cross-culturally felt very natural for Munyurangabo. I’d prefer that this issue of national identity be minor, although it
rarely is today.

AN- Where, among our other filmmakers, do you find inspiration? Who are the directors who have left an indelible impression on you?
IC- I’m always inspired by the so-called transcendental filmmakers- Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer, Tarkovsky. Lately, I’ve bee nmoved by the work of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Pedro Costa. I greatly respect what Lee Chang Dong is doing. Beyond cinema, there’s quite a well of art to draw from. These days I’m obsessed with Robert Frank’s photography, Philip Roth’s novels, and the great American poets. Maybe this is why I’m so drawn to a larger project on America.

AN- Which brings me to my next question- the trilogy. It’s about America and revolves around poetry; what’s the first film called?

IC- Lucky Life. The idea for it came first while I was editing Munyurangabo. I started reading Gerald Stern’s poetry, and it was at the same time that I was processing some tragedies and crises occurring around me. I often teach my students in Rwanda to mine their own lives and tell their own stories; it was clear that I needed to do the same. I see cinema as poetic medium, and I want to convey the poetic revelation I’d felt in reading Stern through cinema. The idea to make it a trilogy came after I thought of the next film. They seemed to follow this trend of exploring the Biblical concepts of faith, hope, and love, and each seemed to draw from poetry in an instinctive way. I’m not sure if I can make or finish this trilogy, but I’m quite resolved to do so. The idea to make it a trilogy came after I thought of the next film. They seemed to follow this trend of exploring the Biblical concepts of faith, hope, and love, and each seemed to draw from poetry in an instinctive way. I’m not sure if I can make or finish this trilogy, but I’m quite resolved to do so.

AN- you’ve chosen the poetry of Theodore Roethke and Gerald Stern. Does it hold a special significance for you?
IC- For both poets, I chose their work because of the impact they’ve had on my own life. With Roethke, I recalled his poem Wish for a Young Wife while encountering an older woman I knew at an airport who was recently widowed. I never understood the poem until then and was
tremendously moved. The idea for the script came quickly, and I was scribbling it out on the airplane.

AN- What will be the common thread of your trilogy? Please try and sketch out the broad narrative strokes for each film and how each one will relate to each other.
IC- I’m hoping to create three works that build, like poetry, to a moment of revelation for each, specifically regarding the ideas of faith, hope, and love that I mentioned earlier. I’ve already been told that these will be quiet films, whatever that may mean. (PHOTO: MIMI KO)

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