Featuring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Phongam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong
Director: Kim Mordaunt
Writer: Kim Mordaunt
Australian release date: Thursday, 29th August (advance screenings at Cinema Paradiso, Perth, Friday 23 August to Sunday 25 August)
Verdict: A charmer
Forced to relocate due to a dam construction, 10-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) and his poor farming family depart their village, setting out through rural Laos in search of a new home. Ahlo is believed to bring bad luck, and when tragedy strikes early in the journey his grandmother (Bunsri Yindi), a tyrannical matriarch, blames him. Driven to prove he is not cursed, he attempts to set up an opportunity for a new life for his family by winning a lucrative (and bloody dangerous!) rocket competition at an annual Rocket Festival.
This deceptively simple tale of redemption and renewal has a fable-like quality about it. Free of the restraints of realism, it moves inexorably towards an improbable and predictable ending that is nevertheless satisfying and dramatically appropriate. While true to its generic nature in its narrative trajectory, that is not to say there are no surprises along the way. Or that this often humorous and light-hearted piece is flippant. Feel-good and delightful it certainly is, but there is a deadly serious concern at its core: the lingering and far-reaching effects of a war of decades ago on the people of Laos – the most-bombed country per capita on the planet, still littered with live missiles, grenades and landmines.
However, The Rocket is not overtly cause-driven. Australian director Ken Mordaunt, whose previous credits include the Laos-based documentary Bomb Harvest, has instead given the characters front-billing and woven the unexploded ordnance and its ongoing impact into the story as a fact of Laotian life, and an element for dramatic exploitation.
Ahlo’s family, dispossessed of their land by a government that prioritises “progress” over its people, are shown to be but one of many others in the same situation, their relocation problematic partly because much of the good farming land is strewn with live bombs and landmines, and therefore unusable.
Indeed, nowhere off the beaten track is safe. In one tense scene, Ahlo’s new friend Kia (played by the adorable Loungnam Kaosainam) is pitching rocks to him, which he swings at with an improvised baseball bat. Lurking among the rocks is a rusty home-made grenade, which Kia unwittingly picks up. Her eccentric Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), who bears a resemblance to his unlikely hero, American soul icon James Brown, stops her delivering the lethal ‘ball’ in the nick of time.
In search of propellant for the rocket he is entering in the Rocket Festival competition, Ahlo comes across a half-buried missile, known colloquially as a “sleeping tiger”, and attempts to remove the cap to access the explosive powder inside. He is unsuccessful, and not understanding the danger, pelts a rock at the thing in frustration. As he walks away, it explodes. Fortunately (very!), he escapes injury, but the point is made in the natural course of the narrative that the kids of Laos routinely encounter these sorts of hazards if they so much as venture off into the bush.
The kids who play Ahlo and Kia are irresistible, a joy to watch. Uncle Purple does the alcoholic subversive well; he’s rebellious and funny, but ultimately a tragic clown. Ahlo’s grandmother is a curmudgeonly old despot who makes the very most of her matriarchal power, but endears herself as a character with her vulgarity and shameless maneuverings and back-flipping in the cause of always being Right – especially when she’s wrong.
All in all, this is a charming, refreshingly life-affirming little flick with real heart, drawing on some colourful characters played with gusto and feeling by a cast of mostly first-timers. With some mysterious and splendid countryside as a backdrop, the glimpse it gives into Laotian culture is both delightful and sobering.
Note: In conjunction with the film-makers, ChildFund Australia has established The Rocket Education Fund, which will deliver education programs to children in Laos. If you wish to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit www.childfund.org.au/act/payment and select “Laos: The Rocket Education Fund”.
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