By Simon Miraudo
June 10, 2013
(Republished March 7, 2014)
Crowd-pleasers come in many mysterious packages, and there might not be a bigger crowd-pleaser this year than The Rocket; a disarming fable about a makeshift family desperately seeking a place to live in a ravaged Laos. Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt continues the work he started with 2007's documentary Bomb Harvest, which explored the process of bomb disposal in that nation. I've not seen that doco, but if it's as affecting and thoughtful as The Rocket, I might just have to seek it out.
This narrative feature of his begins with the birth of Ahlo, followed closely by Ahlo's stillborn brother. Elder Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) warns the boy's mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), that twins are a danger to their people: one is blessed, but the other is often cursed. As a safety precaution, they should put the surviving child to death. Mali insists otherwise, willing to accept the blame should any tragedy befall their community. Years later, when the building of a new dam renders them homeless, Taitok gets to say "I told you so." Yet, that's merely the beginning of their bad luck.
At the shanty town for displaced residents, the precocious Ahlo (an impressive Sitthiphon Disamoe) meets little Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), orphaned by bombings, and her James Brown-loving Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam). Ahlo's father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), warns him to stay away from these pariahs, lest they similarly be made outcasts by association. Ahlo does the opposite, and indeed renders his family once again unwanted. Eager to end the curse that is ruining his life, Ahlo hears of a rocket-making competition with a cash prize that would guarantee his family the ability to buy a home of their own. Purple, who may or may not have been affiliated with American soldiers once upon a time, has some experience when it comes to explosives. Handy, then, that Laos is practically littered with devices ready to go 'boom' at any moment.
An enthusiastic celebration - and occasional indictment - of a nearly lost culture, The Rocket achieves that rare feat of transporting us to a place that seems so foreign, and then making it feel like home. Of course, it helps that the heart of the story is very familiar. Conventional, even. The gross-out comedy sprinkled throughout, and especially the nail-biting, heart-warming finale, can be found in the most clichéd coming-of-age flicks. There are only so many kinds of stories, however. It's all in the telling. With great craft, and real heart, Mordaunt takes this common tale and gives it to a people rarely seen on screen. Just because it's easy to like doesn't, in any way, make it a lesser experience. With a memorable score from Caitlin Yeo, and dream-like cinematography from Andrew Commis, The Rocket deserves to find an audience. A big one.
The Rocket will be available from Quickflix on March 12, 2014.