The Rocket

The Rocket

Director: Kim Mordaunt

Rating: 4/5

Viewers often engage with films in an effort to derive pleasure from an existential experience. The Rocket truly gives the viewer a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes by transporting them directly into young Alo’s (Sitthiphon Disamoe) life and culture in rural Laos. The film is a realistic coming-of-age story, set in war-ravaged Laos, that recaptures the essence of Nikki Caro’s Whale Rider.

Directed by Australian Kim Mordaunt, The Rocket is a collaborative effort between Australian, Laotian and Thai studios. The film has been received positively, with awards including Best Film (Generation Kplus) at the Berlin Film Festival 2013 and Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor and Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2013.

The film is seen through the eyes of poor, village-dwelling Alo – the sole survivor of the birth that killed his twin. According to legend, and to his relentless old bat of a grandmother, this makes him cursed. Catastrophic events that unfold around Alo all point to his cursed existence, but Alo is determined to prove the universe wrong. Much like in Whale Rider, we see a doomed child’s fight to regain the love and trust of their family.

Australian hydro-electricity developers forcefully reposition Alo’s village. They wish to flood the land in order to create yet another dam. The villages are promised new housing, fertile land and a healthy cash compensation for their troubles. However, as predicted, they are stranded in a construction site with makeshift huts to live in and little running water.

Here, Alo meets two kindred spirits in the adorable Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her James Brown-loving, quirky suit-wearing, eccentric Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam). The experience of fighting to survive prompts both families to join forces. They travel to a new village where they are just in time for the rocket festival, in which homemade rockets are fired to the gods from improvised bamboo platforms. There is a cash prize for the most spectacular rocket. Here Alo has the chance to face his cursed destiny – or get burned trying.

The most enduring aspect of the film is the glimpse it gives viewers into rural Laos. The film blocks out the tourist invaded areas of the country, which is refreshing, and allows you to experience the real essence of the culture – from the Buddhist monks creating rockets to send to the gods asking for rain to the horrifying encounters with the women who dwell in caves.

One reason alone to watch the film is to gain an insight into a country that is not explored much in the Western media. The majestic mountains and stretching jungle is a beautiful backdrop for this reflective and action-packed journey.

The Rocket is a thoughtful account of dominating Western developers and the toll that war has had on Laos’ environment and people. A harrowing moment that exposes this is when Purple explains to Alo, “they don’t care – we are the little people.” This becomes the underlying theme of the film. We see the little people trying to rise up against all odds to grasp at life. These dark themes, however, are mixed with such laugh-out-loud humour that the film forces you to experience multiple states of emotion. Humorous moments that stand out are the monks making multiple penis-shaped rockets, and Purple’s impeccable impressions of James Brown.

The performances by Kia, Alo and Uncle Purple truly will capture you. Kia and Alo’s realistic innocence in their relationship will melt even the hardest cynic. These Lao children both drip adorableness as you see them struggle through life with an unfaltering smile. They both steal the screen with their talents as young actors that allow you to experience, rather than simply view, their tale. Kia’s drunk Uncle Purple and his one liner’s bring an unknowing wittiness to the film.

The Rocket holds a soft sadness in its reflection upon a poorer society – a reflection that is intertwined with heart-warming acts of humanity and demonstrations of the strength that comes from the need to survive. A definite must-see at the festival, The Rocket is a gripping and emotional ride that teaches you about aspects of life that lie beyond Saturday night’s drunken bar crawl. This is a low-budget film that packs an enormous punch.
This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2013.
Posted 2:29pm Sunday 11th August 2013 by Tamarah Scott .