Australian writer/director Kim Mordaunt brings a convincing tale of a young Laotian boy leading his family to a new home…
With his mother killed in a tragic accident, and his family moved on from their humble village to a new ‘home’ so it can make way for a new dam, young Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) soon finds him self ostracised from his new surroundings. His grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) blames him for all the misfortune that’s befallen them, having been born one of twins – a superstition in the village that one will bring good luck and the other bad – though his brother was stillborn.
Ahlo’s father Toma (Sumrit Warin) struggles to come to terms with losing his wife and being a single parent, while Ahlo soon finds himself the most unpopular resident the shanty town excuse for a new home the dam construction company has set out for all the displaced villagers.
Ahlo befriends the similarly aged Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her uncle, another outsider, the ex-soldier with a James Brown obsession, Purple (Thep Phongam). When their possessions are burned due to a misunderstanding, and Ahlo targeted by the other residents, Ahlo leads his family, Kia and Purple, across a land still scarred by mass bombings as part of the Vietnam conflict in search of a new home. Instead they find one of the many Rocket Festivals that light up the Buddhist calendar for ethnic Lao people in Laos and Thailand. Ahlo decides that winning the lucrative competition with his own rocket could turn their lives around, and redeem himself in the eyes of his family and community.
If you were thinking you haven’t heard of many films from Laos, then you’d be right. Unlike its neighbours Thailand, Vietnam, even Burma, Laos has lacked any real consistent cinematic voice. The tight grip held since the country adopted communism in 1975 has only recently begun to loosen, with Thai co-production Sabaidee Luang Prabang (Good Morning, Luang Prabang, 2008) said to be the first commercial film shot in Laos since then. Many Lao actors and filmmakers, including some of the talent here, have made their careers in Thailand, however that that is beginning to change.
Considering Laos’ unfortunate recent history, it’s not surprising to find documentary filmmakers have focused on the countries dubious notoriety as the world’s most bombed country. It was here that Australian writer/director Kim Mordaunt and his producer Sylvia Wilczynski first came across the plight of Laos working on the multi-award winning documentary Bomb Harvest (2008). Following an Australian bomb disposal specialist, it was the Lao children who collected bombs for scrap metal that captured audience’s imaginations, and grew to the dramatic work that would become The Rocket. The region’s love of Rocket festivals, believed to have grown out of Buddhist fertility rites, making an apt counterpoint to a beautiful landscape – captured so tantalisingly by cinematographer Andrew Commis – still torn apart from the bombing during The Secret War.
It’s rare to have a Western director give such a convincing portrayal of an Asian culture, often depictions can feel awkward at best, if not completely fake. The involvement of associate producer Pauline Phayvanh Phoumindar, born in Laos but resident in Australia after the Communist takeover in the wake of the Secret War that devastated Laos as part of the Vietnam conflict, help give the film a genuine voice, but Mordaunt’s understanding of the culture and ability to get credible performances from his cast, a mix of both veteran actors and amateurs.
Sitthiphon ‘Ki’ Disamoe’s background is as humble as the role of Ahlo he plays, reduced to a life as a street kid selling sweets and begging, before his foster mum brought him to the attention of The Rocket’s casting director. In his first major film role, here ‘Ki’ is quite incredible in the lead role. Similarly Loungnam Kaosainam, so vibrant as Kia, was discovered through a small local drama group.
Unsurprisingly, Laos-born Thep Phongam is one of The Rocket’s more established actors, having worked as an actor, comedian and writer in Thailand for some 35 years. Here he gives the quirky, appropriately suited Purple a much-needed presence, without losing the depth sadness of his character. Previous roles include Killer Tattoo, SARS Wars aka Bangkok Zombie Crisis and Yuthlert Sippaapak’s Friday Killer. Sumrit Warin’s career has mainly been and as a stuntman for Thai films, and others films in Thailand including Rambo 4. While Bunsri Yindi found fame in Jira Maligool’s Mekhong Full Moon Party (2002), but is best known for playing Tony Jaa’s mother in Ong-Bak.
Indeed, the most forced part of the narrative is the central device of the Rocket itself; Ahlo’s hope for redemption through building a winning rocket seems a simplistic solution to the family’s problems, even if Mordaunt manages to suggest (spoiler) that Ahlo’s rocket might not actually be successful. To hear Mordaunt and his fellow filmmakers talk about the film, it’s clear where their politics lie, but thankfully these are, for the main part, lightly touched on during the film. Mordaunt doesn’t dwell too long or preach, echoing the overall optimism of the country in its present state.
But one of the topics touched upon has been cause for concern from the Laos censors, the thorny subject of big international companies constructing hydro-electric dams in the country and forcing villagers to relocate. Meaning that ironically the first Laos film to internationally released has been banned and will not be released in its home country. Hopefully that decision may change in the future, as state censorship continues to loosen up. Whatever happens, The Rocket is part of a forward-looking momentum in Laos, and its global presence can only do the infant film scene some good.