Set and filmed in a country that has no real film industry to speak of, the fact that The Rocket has even been made should be cause enough for celebration. The fact that it is such a finely crafted and highly polished production is a remarkable achievement. An Australian production filmed on location primarily in Laos using local actors, some of whom possessed no previous experience, The Rocket presents an engaging family narrative that also offers considerable insight into the tragic history of the country and the ongoing hardships being endured by many residents in the name of progress.
In particular, the film addresses Laos’ ongoing legacy as the most bombed country in the world, with literally thousands of unexploded ordnances littering the landscape and impacting on the lives of residents, often with deadly consequences. However, this is not a film that becomes bogged down in apportioning blame for the sins of the past, it is essentially about family, tradition, superstition and, ultimately, redemption. Writer/Director Kim Mordaunt combines humour and drama to great effect to construct the most unlikely of feel-good narratives. Whilst emotionally wrenching at times, there are enough laugh-out-loud moments and an obligatory happy ending to satisfy even the most fickle film goers.
The story begins with the birth of twins – the second of which is stillborn – in a mountain village in rural Laos, where superstition dictates that one of the children will be evil. Mother-in-law Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) insists that the living baby must also be killed to protect the family. However, Mali (Alice Keohavong) convinces Taitok to keep the second birth a secret and we fast forward 10 years to meet Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), who possesses a happy-go-lucky attitude and a close relationship with his mother despite being subjected to the constant scorn of his grandmother and her fervent proclamations about the bad luck he brings to the family.
However, when the entire village is forced to relocate to make way for a dam that will flood their valley, tragedy strikes and Ahlo’s relationship with his father Toma (Sumrit Warin) deteriorates. Ahlo retreats into a friendship with 8-year-old Kia (Lougnam Kaosainam) and her eccentric Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an alcoholic outcast who models his appearance and movements on James Brown. With the authorities failing to deliver on the new homes promised as part of the re-settlement and Ahlo having fallen foul of their neighbours through a series of misadventures, the family – including Kia and Purple – decide to move into town in search of work. It is here that a rocket festival – which is held to entice rain from the gods – provides an opportunity for Ahlo to redeem himself and prove that he is not a curse.
The casting is terrific and the performances are excellent. With the exception of Taitok, who seems a bit over-the-top in her treatment of Ahlo, the characters seem genuine and natural. Young Disamoe does a wonderful job as Ahlo and it is his accomplished handling of the lead role on which much of the success of the film can be pinned. Kaosainam is great as the wise-beyond-her-years Kia, with Phongam’s Purple an absolute delight as a character, despite being a less than ideal role model. Warin doesn’t have a lot to say as Toma, but he captures the heartbreak and conflict within this broken man tremendously well.
Some may struggle with the humour given the perils faced by the characters and those still living under such circumstances in Laos, but it is these elements that will likely make the film – and thereby the issue – much more accessible than Mordaunt’s 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest. The scene in which the family travels in the back of a truck loaded with bombs and missiles is both funny and frightful in equal measure and is very effective in demonstrating that such perils are the reality of life for the people of this region.
The Rocket is Australia’s submission for the Best Foreign Language category at the 2013 Academy Awards and is a most worthy contender. I just hope that the film is seen as much more than a good ‘foreign film’ or a good ‘Australian film’ and is recognised, as it should be, on a much broader scale as a great film in its own right.