Laos/Australia (2013) Dir. Kim Mordaunt
This first fiction feature from Australian documentary filmmaker Kim Mordaunt is also the first film to hail from Laos I’ve seen. The roots of The Rocket can be found in Mordaunt’s 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest, about an Australian bomb disposal expert in Laos trying to clear up unexploded bombs dropped on the country during the Vietnam War.
In the Laos mountains a young woman Mali (Alice Keohavong) gives birth to twin boys but one is stillborn. Mali’s superstitious and traditionalist mother-in-law Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) believes one twin is always cursed and one is good, and that the living twin is the cursed one. Mali refuses and they say no more about it, not even to Mali’s husband Toma (Sumrit Warin).
Seven years later the family are forced to relocate due to potential flooding from nearby dams. During the move Mali is killed in an accident that an angry Taitok blames on the boy Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), revealing in hr outburst the truth of his dead twin and proclaiming him a cursed child. Unfortunately chaos seems to follow Ahlo wherever he goes, earning him and his family pariah status. When Ahlo learns of a local rocket festival holding a competition with a huge prize, he decides to build a rocket and win!
It seems that the zero to hero storyline is a universal one that can even get the film treatment from the unlikeliest corners of the globe; the magic of world cinema thus affords us the opportunity to see just how other countries and cultures adapt this tale to suit their own environments. The idea may have come from an Australian but this is very much an authentic Asian film, going just beyond the location (it was shot in both Laos and Thailand) and the native dialogue.
Mordaunt clearly knows both his subject, as per the aforementioned documentary, and the traditions and finer details of Laos culture, which shares many traits with neighbouring Thailand. If you have experienced Asian and Thai cinema set in rural communities, such as Tony Jaa’s ill-fated Ong Bak sequels, or even the recent chilling Indonesian documentary The Act Of Killing, certain elements of this film will have a familiar aura about them. One can also find a flicker of comparison to the early acts in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, since Ahlo and family live in perpetual squalor.
The poor lad has a rough start to life, not in the least having a scornful grandmother who can’t keep a civil tongue in her mouth in his presence. After Mali’s death Ahlo runs riot but not in a destructive way, but a playful way any seven year-old does. In his new slum abode Ahlo befriends a girl of the same age, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), who lives with her uncle Purple (Suthep Po-ngam), so called because of the purple suit he wears in tribute to his hero, soul legend James Brown. The youngsters get up to harmless mischief together but Ahlo ends up inadvertently causing some kind of calamity in the process, eventually seeing the family hounded out of there spot in the commune.
They flee to the abandoned village Purple once lived but the village chief says they can only stay until after the rocket festival, the tenet of which is that sending rockets up to God will make it rain. Seeing the chance to buy some land with the winnings, Ahlo wants to enter the contest but his father and grandmother believe his curse will ruin everything as usual, so Ahlo goes it alone.
It might seem beyond our ken to accept such a naive notion but these beliefs exist in this modern world of ours and there is a certain charm to being able to witness this, even through a fictional account. It may also seem improbable that a small, impoverished community can build rockets but the remnants of the American bombs offer a starting point. With Ahlo not being so fortunate he has to rely on Mother Nature and the very fundamentals of fuel creation for his rocket.
This aspect doesn’t appear until almost an hour into the film, yet it doesn’t feel rushed since the time has been effectively used in building up Ahlo and the tribulations he endures so we are firmly behind the plucky youngster as he takes on the adults to earn his redemption. In a story, which could have been overflowing with bitter political commentary, Mordaunt instead toys with the issue of the bombs as an ominous reminder of what Laos had endured in the past, with Ahlo being both a metaphor for the country and as a symbol of hope.
Even with such a heavy cloud looming over the proceedings, there is plenty of humour on display here, largely through the innocent hijinks of the two young protagonists as well as some cheeky little slivers of innuendo. The kids spy on two elderly men using their rockets for some phallic size references that they don’t get, but prompts Kia to tell Ahlo “I hope your rocket is a big one!”
They may only be about 10 years-old but Sitthiphon Disamoe and Loungnam Kaosainam, who make an adorable pair, are both superb in their roles as Ahlo and Kia respectively, bringing both childish exuberance and a feisty precociousness to their characters, born out of their need to grow up quickly. Disamoe in particular is remarkable since he is tasked with carrying the entire film on his young shoulders and makes for believable and supportable protagonist.
The Rocket is simple in its premise and execution but reaches deep with its subtle messages and touches even deeper with its sheer heart and bucolic charm. Mordaunt has made the transition from documentaries to fiction films with relative ease, retaining an insightful focus on his subject without compromising his integrity.
A feel good film in every respect and an appreciated look into a hitherto alien culture, it would be your bad luck to miss this treat of a film!