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by MARK JENKINS
- Director: Kim Mordaunt
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 92 minutes
Not rated; violence, partial nudity, ribald humor, animal sacrifice
In Lao with subtitles
To help his struggling family and escape his own status as an outcast, a plucky young boy enters a competition. Yes, The Rocket is a sports movie, with an outcome that’s easily foreseen. The cultural specifics of this Laos-set tale, however, are far less predictable.
Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt came to his debut fiction feature via a documentary, Bomb Harvest, about Laotian children who collect scrap metal from American bombs. The Rocket’s 10-year-old protagonist isn’t one of them, but he does encounter some unexploded bombs and rockets — “sleeping tigers,” in the local lingo. These become of particular interest to Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) when he learns about a singular contest.
The story begins, though, with Ahlo’s birth, which his superstitious grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) deems inauspicious: Although his sibling is stillborn, Ahlo is technically a twin, which according to local lore means he may be cursed. But his mother (Alice Keohavong) refuses to kill him, as the older woman advises.
Nothing comes of grandma’s premonition for a decade, until Laos’s communist government and an Australian corporation announce plans for a new dam that will inundate the village where Ahlo and his family live. (There’s only one Aussie in the film, and he doesn’t even have a speaking part, but he embodies Mordaunt’s regret about what his countrymen have done in Laos.)
On the way to their new home, catastrophe strikes the family, and grandma begins to chide that it’s all Ahlo’s fault. Things only get worse in the relocation camp, where the promised new houses haven’t been built yet.
There, Ahlo befriends 9-year-old Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her only surviving relative, “Uncle Purple” (Thep Phongam). Kia is playful, but a little more sensible than her new pal; her violet-suited uncle is an amiable alcoholic and, a bit too whimsically, obsessed with James Brown.
They’re pariahs in the camp, so Ahlo’s father (Sumrit Warin) orders him to avoid them. Still, the boy has a genius for getting into trouble all by himself, and after his antics enrage the shantytown community, Ahlo’s family must join Kia and her uncle on the lam.
Making their way through a country still hobbled by a war that ended in the 1970s, the refugees encounter preparations for a “rocket festival” — the goal being to puncture the sky and release rains to end a troublesome drought. Thinking he can win enough money to buy his family a new home, Ahlo turns to Uncle Purple, a former child soldier, for tips on explosives.
Laos is reportedly the world’s most bombed country, per capita, and The Rocket conveys a strong sense of the devastation. It also shows a documentarian’s eye for the earthy rural culture, with its phallic talismans and animal sacrifices.
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the movie depicts a world where humans and other critters live closely together, and where animals are treasured yet routinely slaughtered. Ahlo himself is quite the killer, in fact, although Kia stops him from aiming his slingshot at one particular endangered species.
More poetically, Ahlo takes a swim that becomes metaphorical: Diving into a lake created by an existing dam, the boy floats past submerged statues that symbolize the country’s scuttled traditions. This interlude, like the movie’s conclusion, is both agreeable and a little glib.
As Ahlo, Sitthiphon Disamoe demonstrates the resourcefulness he learned during a period when he was a street seller and beggar. It’s his exuberant performance, as much as the pungently naturalistic setting, that lifts The Rocket’s scenario above the generic.
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Jan. 9, 2014 1:44 p.m. ET
A special pleasure of movie going is sitting down with low expectations and coming out with surprised delight. “The Rocket” will do that for you, even though your expectations will have risen somewhat if you’ve read this far.
It’s a small film, set in Laos, with a big theme—changing one’s destiny. The hero, 10-year-old Ahlo, carries a curse almost from birth. He’s supposed to be bad luck, and he does have a gift for creating chaos wherever he goes. But he has the great luck to be played by a former street kid, Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe, whose irrepressible verve confers plausibility on this feel-good fable. (So does Andrew Commis’s stylish cinematography.) Kim Mordaunt’s debut feature was shot with a mostly nonprofessional Laotian cast. You’d never know, though, that the amateurs hadn’t had extensive experience—Mr. Mordaunt, an Australian, is an actor himself, and he directs actors exceptionally well—or that the one seasoned pro wasn’t tossing off his distinctive performance with beginner’s luck.
Laos gives the action a haunting context—a nation, scarred by the Vietnam War, where unexploded American bombs, or “sleeping tigers,” still lurk in the fields. After Ahlo’s family experiences a string of disasters that include the loss of their home and land to a giant Australo-Laotian hydroelectric project, the kid goes forth with his father and grandmother in search of a place to live and a way to survive. Soon they meet an endearing orphan, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her boozy uncle, Purple (fine work by a veteran actor and comedian named Thep Phongam); the characters may be clichés, but the performances are utterly fresh. At that point the group’s journey becomes, by turns, a charming road movie—Purple is a mysterious eccentric with a military past and a James Brown fetish—and a peacetime variant of “Forbidden Games,” René Clément’s 1952 classic about a young orphan girl and a poor farmer’s son making their way through Occupied France during World War II.
Mr. Mordaunt is no stranger to that latter part of the plot, having made a documentary feature, “Bomb Harvest,” about an Australian bomb-disposal expert and Laotian children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. But his taste is eclectic, with talent to match, so “The Rocket” is ultimately a canny piece of entertainment in which Ahlo gets a chance to redeem himself, and save his family, at a local rocket festival. A rocket festival? Yes, such things do exist in Laos, according to the production notes. They’re county fairs of a sort, competitions that ring changes on the nation’s history by firing rockets back at the sky that once rained bombs, awarding prizes for the missile that flies highest. Far be it from me to reveal the outcome, but watching Ahlo mix his explosives is like watching a Cordon Bleu chef whipping up a stupendous soufflé.