The Rocket


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Sitthiphon Disamoe and Alice Keohavong in The Rocket
"The spirit of childhood skips and giggles through The Rocket even though Kim Mordaunt's debut fiction feature touches on deeply disturbing humanitarian issues."

The spirit of childhood skips and giggles through The Rocket even though Kim Mordaunt's debut fiction feature touches on deeply disturbing humanitarian issues, including population displacement and the constant threat of undetonated bombs for those living in modern, post-war Laos.

The mood of cheerful and irrepressible defiance is embodied by Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), whose easy smile puts the sun in the shade. We meet him as he enters the world and watch how his grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) moves from jubilation to horror when she realises he is a twin - considered by their tribe to lead to one child being blessed and the other cursed. His mother Mali (Alice Keohavong), displaying an obstinacy that will pass to her son, insists that because the other baby is dead "I haven't had twins" and refuses to snuff out his life.

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Ten years later, his curmudgeonly granny - "I've got more balls than all the men in this village" - remains unconvinced, all but laying the blame at Ahlo's feet when they are told they must relocate their home to make way for a hydro-electric dam. Scenes showing Ahlo scampering around the manmade leviathan of the manmade structure emphasise his smallness against the bigger picture and serve as a reminder that his country as a whole has largely been a pawn in the game, occupied, abused and earning the unenviable title of the most bombed country in the world.

A more personal tragedy than displacement or bomb threat is about to strike, however, and it brings with it more suggestions of the curse. As Ahlo and his family try to find a new home, the youngster strikes up a friendship with the equally feisty Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), a young girl who has lost all her family with the exception of her Uncle Purple (Suthep Po-ngam) - a former soldier with a James Brown fixation and a raging alcoholism that speaks of his mental scars.

There is a rocket, of course, as bold and colourful as Ahlo, but it arrives late in the day and a long time after we've been shown the other less friendly explosives that litter the landscape. Mordaunt has a history of documentary work and his matter-of-fact approach to the 'sleeping tiger' bombs makes them all the more chilling. These potentially lethal objects are as much a part of the fabric of Ahlo's life as the more magic realist elements and tradition and Mordaunt weaves these aspects together in a way that is powerful but never feels like lecturing. His humanitarian message may be a constant companion to the story but it never overshadows it.

Ahlo and Purple are two halves of a coin, the youngster traumatised but offering hope for the future yet to come, while the elder, despite his largely comical demeanour, represents the ghost of childhood suffering past. But Mordaunt's film is robust and neither melancholy nor sentimental. He and his cinematographer Andrew Commis have an easy way with the camera, capturing the playfulness and energy of childhood in a way that recalls Hirokazu Kore-eda and, by presenting events almost exclusively from Ahlo or Kia's perspective, he brings a freshness and an easy route into the story for those with no previous knowledge of Laos.

Unashamedly crowdpleasing it may be - a fact endorsed by the slew of audience awards it has picked up on the festival circuit - but Mordaunt's film also has something to say Laos and the aftermath of conflict more generally, that he sweetens the medicine helps us to drink in a larger dose of unpalatable humanitarian truths.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2014
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A youngster and his family try to forge a new life after being displaced by a dam.
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Director: Kim Mordaunt

Writer: Kim Mordaunt

Starring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Alice Keohavong, Thep Phongam, Sumrit Warin

Year: 2013

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Australia

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