The feature debut from documentarian Kim Mordaunt follows the plight of a young village boy in rural Laos, who is believed to bring bad luck to his family, and his efforts to win them back by entering a dangerous rocket festival.
10-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) has been branded as bad luck since the day he was born alongside a stillborn twin brother. Cited as the cause of all his family's misfortune, including the accidental death of his mother, Ahlo is finally shunned from the community when a new dam development ousts them from their homes. Ahlo seeks refuge with an eccentric outcast, Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam) and his young niece, Kia, but yearns for the love of his father. As the villagers prepare for the annual rocket festival, in which homemade explosives are blasted into the sky in the hope of bringing rain to their parched fields, Ahlo spies his chance to reconcile with his family by winning the festival's cash prize.
Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt hatched the idea for his debut feature whilst chronicling the story of a fellow countryman bomb disposal expert working in rural Laos. That film, Bomb Harvest, documented the hazardous countryside, littered with thousands of unexploded devices, and the children who gather them up to sell for scrap metal. In these children, Mordaunt saw the perfect subjects for a feature film, and much of The Rocket sees Ahlo and young Kia living in a world where these dormant weapons of destruction - or "sleeping tigers" as they are known - are a daily hazard in the otherwise serene countryside of Northern Laos.
Through the character of Ahlo's superstitious grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi, Tony Jaa's mother in Ong Bak), Mordaunt is also able to explore the ancient traditional rituals and beliefs still prevalent in this fast-changing country. When Ahlo is born and discovered to be a twin, Taitok decrees that both babies must be destroyed - as one will be blessed, but the other cursed. When Ahlo's brother is delivered stillborn, his mother convinces Taitok to keep it a secret and spare his life. She agrees, but before long, the family's misfortunes have manifested as a hatred within Taitok for her mischievous grandson.
The character of Uncle Purple (played by popular Thai comedian Them Phongam, whom some may recognise from SARS Wars and Friday Killer) is a drunkard and an outcast, always dressed in a garish purple suit and displaying a fondness for James Brown. A former soldier, Purple is a reminder of Laos' controversial past, in which indigenous Hmong tribespeople were recruited by the CIA to fight for them, while also harbouring a fervent patriotism for his country.
There are numerous themes and socio-political issues at play in the subtext of The Rocket, including Australia's (and the West in general) industrial exploitation and opportunism in Asia, as seen through the new dam development, which displaces Ahlo's family under faux promises of new modern housing and cash handouts. However, Mordaunt never lets these subjects eclipse the touching and uplifting story at the film's heart - the efforts of a young underdog to win the love and acceptance of his family.
Former street urchin Sitthiphon Disamoe is a delightful protagonist, full of energy and charm, with a cheeky streak of harmless mischief about him that fills the role out. Mordaunt has stated that he worked at length with the film's young performers before rewriting their roles to better fit the actors' personalities. It's an approach that pays off handsomely, as both Disamoe and Loungnam Kaosainam who plays Kia, feel incredibly natural and at ease in their roles and in front of the camera.
All round, The Rocket boasts incredibly polished production values, without overloading the narrative with Hollywood-style sentimentalism. There is a light, breezy tone to the story, which keeps the pace fast and involving, while giving the moments of genuine emotion and tragedy that much greater impact, both on the audience and the lives of these naturally upbeat characters.
The film builds towards the climactic festival, in which the community looks to appease the gods and end the dry season, while Ahlo is literally shooting for the heavens with his final effort for family cohesion. The irony is not lost that, in a country that has been showered with more bombs than any other in the world, the hopes for a brighter future for all concerned lie in launching their own aerial assault - and the results are suitably explosive. The Rocket strikes a pitch-perfect balance between cultural authenticity and cinematic pathos that goes straight for the heart, and proves an absolute delight.
The Rocket opens in the UK in selected cinemas on 14 March
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