|UK Release Date||14th March 2014|
|Starring||Sitthiphon 'Ki' Disamoe|
|Reviewed||9th February 2014|
One of the main reasons we enjoy the London Film Festival so much is the chance to pick out entirely random films from around the world, hoping to unearth some gem from the far reaches of the globe. Wadjda was discovered this way, but then, so was A Fish. Laos doesn’t have what you’d call a burgeoning film industry to what could be described as their first feature film was an irresistible prospect.
The Rocket is technically an Australian film for reasons that I’m sure revolve around funding but for all intents and purposes it is very much a Laos film. It is filmed in Laos with actors from the region and filled with characters based on people met by director Kim Mordaunt, who spent time there, filming his documentary Bomb Harvest. Telling the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon ‘Ki’ Disamoe), a boy born as part of twins (his sibling is stillborn), something that is viewed as a curse in the culture he grows up in. His grandmother gives the infant a pass on the pleading from his mother and she and Ahlo’s mother secretly bury the sibling’s body under a mango tree. The grandmother still believes the curse exists though despite Ahlo growing to be a healthy, fun loving boy.
When a nefarious Australian company expands its electricity generation in the area, an additional dam is built and Ahlo’s village is turfed out with the promise of a wonderful new home with electricity, running water and all modern services. The truth is less than impressive though and the whole village effectively end up in a refugee camp along with other villages from the area. En route a tragedy occurs (which I won’t spoil by detailing as it provides one of the few moments in cinema where I've involuntarily put my hand to my mouth in shock) that Ahlo’s grandmother blames on his curse. Ahlo takes this on the chin though and sets about trying to find some fertile land to start growing some mangoes he brought with him from the tree mentioned above. Ahlo’s behaviour soon gets him noticed in the village - not in a good way - and soon the family has been forced to up sticks and head out with Uncle Purple (a James Brown loving town drunk) and his young niece (charged with looking after Purple on the death of her parents). They arrive in another village that is about to hold the rocket competition of the title and Ahlo resolves to build the greatest rocket and win the family the money they need to set up a home.
The Rocket is a film of contrasts. Mordaunt’s experience in his previous documentary (this is his first feature film) Bomb Harvest, a movie about Laos children collecting bomb scraps left from the war to sell as scrap metal, is clear to see. For a film that is essentially a feel-good movie, it treads a very fine line with some truly shocking moments and we’re not for a minute sheltered from the underlying issues in Laos society. Riven with strife caused by differing political ideologies (Laos is a Marxist-leaning socialist republic), long standing tribal issues and suspicion of people co-opted by the CIA during the war, the effects of up-rooting villages and throwing the residents into camps together is never far from the surface. Coupled with a deeply spiritual belief that labels Ahlo a problem from birth, the movie never gives us an entirely easy ride. Through all this though, the movie carries a message of hope born out of youthful innocence.
Ki is fantastic as the effervescent Ahlo. His boundless energy and wonderful smile imbue his character with an amazing sense of irrepressible wonder. A stark and telling contrast to the deep suspicion and superstition of his grandmother’s generation. Sitting between this is Ahlo’s father Toma (Sumrit Warin), a man seemingly lost and struggling to keep up with his circumstances. Initially refusing to help Ahlo with his rocket, he is hen-pecked by his mother and dogged by uncertainty over his errant son’s behaviour. In contrast and constantly sporting an old purple suit donated to him by the US government (his past is somewhat shady), Uncle Purple is an inspired character. Idolising James Brown, he is either the perfect spark for Ahlo’s enthusiasm or an absolute disaster waiting to happen. Ahlo soon palls up with Mali (Alice Keohavong), Purple’s niece and the two make for an engaging couple, after all, there’s no point causing all this trouble if you don’t have anyone to cause it with.
The movie is shot and scored beautifully. The immense Laos rainforest and valleys fill the frame, as does the constantly alive sound of the forest but always around the corner is a reminder of the poverty that rural people suffer in the shadow of industry exploiting the country’s reserves. At one point, Ahlo and his father visit the existing dam. Ahlo naturally bails on the meeting to look around the dam and it’s an awe inspiring sight as he is framed in miniature at the bottom of the screen as the dam looms above him.
Ahlo’s adventure is a wonderful rites of passage. He suffers at the hands of people who should know better and is repeatedly let down by his elders and just as much by bad luck but his spirit remains indomitable and it’s impossible not to root for him. Which sounds all very simple but the movie is better than that. Filled with intelligent details that would escape a less well-versed filmmaker, The Rocket is a wonderful piece of work. Layers of history and culture are used to flesh out Ahlo’s journey and the cast deliver truly impressive performances. Brutal, beautiful, shocking, ethereal, witty and hopeful, this movie really will make you think it’s possible to hit the stars from the lowest valley. Even if that is with a rocket filled with bat shit. That’s been urinated on to make it more potent. If this is the standard we can expect from Laotian film making, then I am very much looking forward to more coming.
Check out the trailer here.