One of the very first commercially released films to be set and shot in Laos, The Rocket (2013, dir. Kim Mordaunt) is a charming story about family, tradition, and the quest to construct the perfect home-made rocket. Here’s a summary of the film, from IMDb:
A boy who is believed to bring bad luck to everyone around him leads his family and two new friends through Laos to find a new home. After a calamity-filled journey through a land scarred by the legacy of war, to prove he’s not bad luck he builds a giant rocket to enter the most exciting and dangerous competition of the year: the Rocket Festival.
As aforementioned, The Rocket is one of the first films to be set and shot in Laos. The very first Laotian commercial film was Sabaidee Luang Prabang, a romantic drama which was released in 2008. Ever since Laos adopted communism in 1975, only propaganda films and government films about national patriots were allowed to be produced in the country. This is a long period of time to miss out on the expression of Laotian culture and tradition in film, and one wonders exactly how many amazing stories we’ve missed out on seeing as a result of the political issues that were occurring in the country during this period.
Perhaps as a result of this huge gap of time in which Laotians were unable to express their cultural identity and daily life through cinema, it feels like the film is bursting at the seams with cultural nuance. At the very beginning, we see a fairly intense childbirth scene, where Ahlo is being born. To his mother’s (Alice Keohavong) and grandmother’s (Boonsri Yindee) surprise, twins are delivered – one alive, one stillborn. Since there is a legend in their tribe that one of two twin babies will carry a curse, Ahlo’s grandmother suggests ‘getting rid’ of Ahlo as well as the stillborn infant. But Ahlo’s mother wants to pretend that she only delivered him, and raise him as though the other infant never existed. From this point onwards, Ahlo’s grandmother treats him with suspicion and contempt, concerned with the curse that he may or may not carry. This is but one example of the cultural overtones that permeate the film and make it very special indeed.
The acting talent in this film is mostly local and untrained. Sitthiphon Disamoe is wonderful as young Ahlo, and was awarded the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award for Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film in the year of its release. Disamoe gives such an honest performance. He doesn’t hold back from showing the full extent of his character’s emotions, whether he’s expressing joy, disappointment, or pure grief. The fact that the actors are mostly untrained gives their performances a raw quality that increases their emotional impact. Boonsri Yindee is amazing as Ahlo’s grandmother Taitok, and Sumrit Warin is also wonderful as Ahlo’s father, Toma. But I think audiences will remember this film for Ahlo’s young orphan friend Kia, played by Loungnam Kaosainam, and her eccentric caretaker Uncle Purple, played by Suthep Po-ngam. Uncle Purple is a bit like Captain Jack Sparrow but with better taste in music. He gets a lot of comic relief moments, but his fair share of poignant moments as well.
Laos is an incredibly beautiful country, and the direction and cinematography seek to highlight this at all times, even when the more brutal aspects of the post-war issues are explored. Kim Mordaunt’s direction makes use of lots of different camera angles to take in many elements of a scene. He also seems to specialise in close-up shots of character’s faces as they are experiencing intense emotions. One such moment is where Ahlo is swinging on a rope over a river, and the camera is fixed on his face as he experiences extreme joy, flying through the air. The effect is amazing. The music by Caitlin Yeo is also very beautiful and perfectly matches the tone of each scene.
For a film with a seemingly straightforward story, there are a lot of heavy themes at work: tribal displacement, family issues, masculinity, third world development, globalisation, post-war issues, homelessness, growing up, shame, cultural traditions versus modern advancement, family issues, and grief and bereavement. This is a long list but yet I’m sure I’ve missed some others. For a film that contains such heavy themes, it does manage to keep a sense of levity with a lot of genuinely comedic moments. It’s not all doom and gloom – for this family, these issues are just a part of the ups and downs of daily life in rural Laos; Ahlo’s family is resilient, and directly face any troubles they are confronted with.
However, The Rocket is not without its drawbacks. I much preferred the first part of the film that focused on the more cultural elements of the story, as opposed to the latter half that was dominated by the rocket-building competition. It almost feels as if The Rocket could be two separate films; the first being a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming family drama, and the second being a typical, fairly light competition-style drama film. It is ironic that the part that the film is named after is the part I liked least. This latter half is a bit generic, and it does detract from the strength of the film overall.
However, even though I had these criticisms lingering in my mind when watching the film, I ultimately didn’t care about them that much because it was such an enjoyable experience. This is one of those films where you feel like you’ve gone through an emotional journey by its conclusion. It might tackle a lot of heavy themes, but it is ultimately an optimistic film with a lot of heart, and a lot of cultural significance.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!