A so-called cursed boy (Sitthiphon 'Ki' Disamoe) from Laos enters a rocket-building competition.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL(OFFICIAL COMPETITION): The unique countryside of Laos is just one of the joys of Kim Mordaunt’s heartwarming story, The Rocket. Recalling the captivating essence of Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) in its telling of a life with fate and faith in its corner, this Australian/Laotian/Thai co-production could find similar breakout success once (inevitably warm) word of mouth spreads.
The dark, violent past of Laos infuses the narrative at every step.
The opening scenes recall Caro’s Maori weepie in particular detail, as, like in that film, we meet our hero at the very beginning of a life spent as a surviving twin. Traditional gender inequality cursed Caro’s protagonist (memorably played by Keisha Castle-Hughes); here, local customs dictate that the child will bring bad luck to the village, and it’s only through the courage of the mother (Alice Keohavong) that the boy is not killed by his superstitious grandmother (Bunsri Yindi).
The infant grows into the boundlessly optimistic Ahlo, brought to vivid life by the remarkable first-time actor Sitthiphon Disamoe. His broad, toothy grin and expressive nature is barely ever ruffled, despite a close group of relatives and villagers who continue to view his existence as portentous. An Australian conglomerate secures their jungle region for new energy production, forcing Ahlo and his family to move to seek out a new life, along with his only friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her life of the party, James Brown-obsessed Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam, his character named after the suit he never takes off).
The dark, violent past of Laos infuses the narrative at every step; one of the most astonishing aspects of the film is the ease with which the population accepts and moves past 'distractions’ such as unexploded bombs in fields littered with landmines. It is a charred landscape and nervous existence that Mordaunt knows too well; his 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest tracked a trainee unit of bomb disposal technicians through the region.
Despite undoubtedly holding well-informed and passionate views about exploitation of the indigenous population, Mordaunt admirably refuses to overtly politicise Ahlo’s experience with a heavy directorial hand. He captures the experiences and visions of a young child blessed with an eternal good nature; the impact of damming and deforestation takes on its own sharp focus, but only in the periphery of his self-penned story.
The 'rocket’ of the title represents Ahlo’s ultimate hope that he can provide wealth for his family and rid himself of the stigma associated with his lot in life. In his travels, he stumbles upon a village that holds an annual rocket-launching contest with a large cash prize attached and he is determined, above and beyond his own well-being, to win the contest. It is a resolution that may play out as pat and maudlin in the wrong hands, but Mordaunt’s film is so rich in emotional integrity by the start of the third act, it is inconceivable that any audience would not go along with the uplifting denouement.