CANNES, France-- Under normal circumstances, no one would fault Lee Isaac Chung for having second thoughts about his career path. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Yale, he gave up on a potentially lucrative career in medicine to study film at the University of Utah. But Chung hasn't had any doubts in the past 10 days - he's been at the Cannes Film Festival, premiering his Rwanda-based film, "Munyurangabo."

"Film was drawing me so much that I realized I shouldn't become a doctor," said Chung, 28. "The decision I made at that point was, I'm going to devote as much time to becoming a filmmaker as I would to becoming a doctor."

Getting into the Cannes' Official Selection isn't easy. With thousands of entries from around the world, most U.S.-born directors who make it are already revered, established names - people like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh. Chung is the only director from the United States to get into the Official Selection with his first dramatic feature.

"Munyurangabo," whose alternate English title is "Liberation Day," premiered Thursday in the 900-seat Salle Debussy as part of Un Certain Régard, a sidebar competition at Cannes. "Many of you are probably wondering why a Korean-American directed a film in Rwanda," Chung said while introducing his film. "The people there were wondering the same thing. They thought I was making a Kung Fu movie."

Chung shot the film in 11 days last summer, when he traveled to Kigali, Rwanda with former university classmate Jenny Lund and screenwriter Samuel Anderson to teach a course in filmmaking and photography at Youth With A Mission (YWAM), a non-denominational Christian relief base. The 15 students served as the film's crew.

The story centers on two boys, from the once embattled Hutu and Tutsi tribes, who forge a relationship in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Tutsi, Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), wants to kill the Hutu soldier who murdered his father, and goes on the journey with his only friend, Sangwa (Eric Dorunkundiye). But on the way, they stop in Sangwa's Hutu village, which he fled years earlier. Sangwa's disapproving father is suspicious of Munyurangabo because he fears Tutsi retaliation for the mass killings perpetrated by Hutu factions during the genocide.

The racial issues don't stem from the character's ethnic prejudices, but from perceived obligations to their heritage. The Rwandan government extensively educated young Rwandans against tribal hatred, and in post-genocide Rwanda it is taboo to ask someone about his or her tribe. Chung broached the issue in the film, however, because he was interested in the effect memories from past generations have on present attitudes. "They've had this huge tragedy . . . they're trying to figure out, 'What are we going to remember?'"

"Munyurangabo" is the first feature-length narrative made in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's primary language, which Chung doesn't speak. He relied on a translator to communicate with the two street kids he cast as his stars, both of whom he found through YWAM's soccer-outreach program. Chung wanted to bring his actors' backgrounds to the roles: Rutagengwa's father was missing after the genocide, and Dorunkundiye ran away from home. Chung tried to recreate the scene in which he and his mother reunite.

The film focuses less on plot than on its characters' lives, emotions and personalities. Chung's handheld cinematography naturally observes his characters in long takes, as they go about their daily work and tell frivolous but funny stories about things like freak goat births.

The director developed his style while studying at the University of Utah. "Isaac had an uncanny ability to absorb all the important features of his favorite genres and auteurs, then replicate those features in his own films," said Kevin Hanson, Chung's professor in the University's film department. "When he finally began to do work that was truly his, he knew exactly what he wanted and if he changed his mind, he knew exactly why."

Chung chose the University of Utah because of Hanson's description of the program. "He wants us to create films with a lot of freedom, without thinking about commercial realities," Chung said. The low tuition was also a factor. "I thought, I could go to NYU or UCLA and I would end up paying an arm and a leg . . . about $150,000. Or I could go and learn a lot of technical things, and come out with the money I saved to make a film."

When he arrived in Utah, Chung was "a bit asocial" and spent his first year catching up on great films. "I'd simply watch tons and tons of films. It was very formative. Personally, it was a blank slate for me because I knew there was so much to learn." Chung's taste then was mainstream because he had grown up on a farm in Arkansas, without art-house cinemas. "I hadn't even heard of Cannes until I went to college," he said.

Chung, Lund and Anderson's production company, Almond Tree Films, will return to Kigali next summer to encourage Rwanda's native population to learn filmmaking. They also plan to donate the film's proceeds to Rwanda, Lund said: "After we cover costs, it's going to be donated to YWAM and various other organizations for scholarships and development."

After that, Chung plans to make a new film - this time in English - and continue to stretch his career. Hanson doesn't think that will be a problem for Chung, whose skill he says has rapidly matured.

"In part that's because he's a really smart guy," he said. "In part it's because he really loves making films - not just the idea of making them."