Laotian-Australian film finds a war-torn nation’s heart in a 10-year-old boy’s journey to redemption
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Monday 26 August 2013 20.40 EDT theguardian.com
It has won praise at festivals around the world, and will this week get its Australian release, but it may be some time before audiences in Laos get to see their own feel-good story, The Rocket.
The Laotian-Australian film tells the story of 10 year-old Ahlo, increasingly blamed for his family’s calamities until he finds redemption by taking part in the country’s traditional Rocket Festival. But the backdrop – of forced relocation to allow for the construction of dams – is proving more contentious, and the film has yet to be approved by the government’s media department
“[Laos’s dam industry] is worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s incredibly political at the moment,” says Kim Mordaunt, the film’s Australian writer-director. “I just think it’s going to take some time before that settles. Once that settles a little bit then it’ll probably get shown.”
The Rocket raises questions about the roles played by multinational companies in emerging economies – Mordaunt argues that more than 60m people worldwide have been displaced by dams alone.
“[The film] is about our relationship looking outward and our relationship with Asia as well – we were trying to basically be about being beyond economic opportunism – we need to deepen that relationship and that is a story that is relevant to us as Australians,” he says.
But The Rocket has already gone much further – its tale of personal redemption is striking a chord with cinema audiences: winning awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and audience-voted prizes at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International
“I think they’re emotionally responding to the family and to these kids, and then secondly, it’s about being transported to a place that they might not know much about, and the journey is exciting,” says Mordaunt.
At the centre of the film, which opens in Australia on Thursday, lies the performance of 10-year-old former street kid Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe, who plays Ahlo, an ingenious wheeler-dealer who becomes an outcast to his own family, and Loungnam Kaosainam, who plays his friend, nine-year-old orphan Kia. Their performances are as authentic as they are poetic – at their first meeting Ahlo catches flowers dropped by Kia while she sits in a high tree branch.
“I tried to give them as much freedom as possible and give them things to do that would kind of force them into play and interact,” says Mordaunt, who originally trained as an actor and also has an extensive background making documentaries. “That did make it quite hard to shoot at times.”
The film may not be identifiably Australian, although Screen Australia was the major investor and it received the producer offset tax rebate, but Australian audiences have shown a strong appetite for local feel-good stories in recent years, such as The Sapphires and Red Dog.
Filmed in a foreign language – Lao – The Rocket faces an extra hurdle to win over local cinema audiences. It’s worked before with Australian films such as Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (which grossed more than $3.5m in 2006), although the local arthouse cinema market is under more pressure. And the film’s universal themes and slick execution cut across cultures make it deserving of a mainstream audience.
It tells a simple story overlayed against the complex geopolitical history of Laos, dragged into the Vietnam War during the 1970s and still dealing with that legacy – a backdrop that Mordaunt previously explored in the 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest. That award-winning doco followed an Australian bomb disposal specialist in Laos and the local children who collect bomb scrap metal to sell.
It was there the filmmakers met a Laos man in a remote village who inspired another memorable character in The Rocket: Purple (played by popular local actor Thep Phongam), an alcoholic former soldier who controversially fought for the US during the war and breaks out into James Brown dance moves when the right moment arises. Purple, like the film itself, mixes pathos with comedy.
“As I was casting and finding these people I was rewriting around [them] – you start to think well, they’ve got 90% of what’s in the script,” Mordaunt says, “and then, hold on, they’ve got another 200% that is interesting. So I was writing all the time as I discovered things about them.”
We journey through the beautiful yet war-torn countryside and finally to the Rocket Festival where money and danger are on offer in equal portions. At the riotous event, based on an ancient fertility festival, people launch homemade rockets to provoke the sky gods to send rain at the end of the dry season.
“At the real Rocket Festival you really do have the country’s history venting itself, shooting back at the sky,” says the director. “It’s not only an amazing festival asking for water – it’s also this metaphor for an entire country’s history and we knew that and we could feel it.”