Posts tagged ‘Thep Phongam’

January 12, 2014

In A Past-Plagued Laos, A Youth Chases A Future

art & life

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January 09, 2014 5:00 PM

Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) bond when they encounter each other in a Laotian refugee village in The Rocket.   Tom Greenwood/Kino Lorber

The Rocket

  • Director: Kim Mordaunt
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Not rated; violence, partial nudity, ribald humor, animal sacrifice

With:  Sitthiphon DisamoeLoungnam KaosainamSuthep Po-ngam

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.

The Wall Street Journal - Life and Culture

Film Review

A Lovely ‘Rocket’ Arrives Under the Radar

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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.

From left, Loungnam Kaosainam, Bunsri Yindi, Sitthiphon Disamoe and Sumrit Warin Kino Lorber

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.

August 27, 2013

The Rocket: pathos meets comedy as Laos reaches for the sky

The Rocket: pathos meets comedy as Laos reaches for the sky

Laotian-Australian film finds a war-torn nation’s heart in a 10-year-old boy’s journey to redemption

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Posted by

Brendan Swift

Monday 26 August 2013 20.40 EDT

The Rocket juxtaposes the politics of dam construction with a joyous tale of personal redemption in a country little known by outsiders. Photograph: PR

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

At the centre of The Rocket is the performance of 10-year-old former street kid Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe. Photograph: PR

Film Festival.

“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.

We journey to the Rocket Festival where people launch homemade rockets to provoke the sky gods to send rain. Photograph: PR

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.”

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