Mordaunt's fable unravels organically, constantly showing us something new and exciting.
In an early sequence in The Rocket, a Laos-set underdog fable by Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt, we see our 10-year-old hero Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, whose chin is perpetually tilted upward in pride) submerged in ethereal blue-green water, exploring the bottom of a lake by his village that’s been formed by a towering dam. He swims past the stone heads of sunken statues that seem to be staring at him, a chilling effect typically associated with old paintings. Ahlo, cheeks puffed, stares back at them defiantly: the chiseled hunks represent the core beliefs of a people who’ve branded him a cursed creature.
Though his brother was stillborn, Ahlo is still technically a twin, which, according to Laotian folklore, makes him a vessel for bad luck. It’s a superstition held as bible by his grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), whose intention iss to kill Ahlo straight out of the womb to avoid misfortune, a cruelty averted by his loving mother Mali (Alice Keohavong), who desperately assures Taitok that the boy will be an exception to the “evil twin” rule.
Mordaunt, whose documentary Bomb Harvest was also filmed in Laos, accentuates the majesty and danger of the jungled landscape, imbuing the borderline triteness of his black sheep fable with a feeling of natural wonder and vitality.
His and DP Andrew Commis’ imagery is powerful, elemental, and varied. The first scene of the film depicts Ahlo’s birth (and his brother’s death) late at night night in a muggy cottage that seems lit by hellfire, emphasizing the supposed wickedness of his origin. The contrast in temperature between this and the aforementioned underwater sequence is wonderful, and the visual playfulness continues throughout the picture, constantly surprising, evoking big emotion, and picking up the slack when the plot falls into the familiar.
When the government announces plans to build a dam that would flood Ahlo’s village, he and his family are forced to move to a relocation camp. On the way to their new home, a freak accident devastates the family, and Taitok’s premonitions, which have gone unproven up to this point, compel her to aim all blame at Ahlo. His father Toma (Sumrit Warin, the most one-dimensional of the cast) doesn’t outwardly support Taitok’s accusations, but can’t bring himself to console his grieving son either. When they arrive at the camp, the houses they were promised are still unfinished, compounding the family’s difficult situation.
Mercifully, Ahlo meets a friend, the adorable Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), a girl close in age who shares his thirst for adventure. The child actors’ performances are effortless, and their on-screen dynamic is fluid and cute as can be. Desamoe has an air of self-assuredness about him that is critical to the role: without it, Ahlo would feel too diminutive and the film would be feel more dour than uplifting.
Kia’s father, a drunk ex-child-soldier and James Brown fanatic named Purple (comedian Thep Phongam), takes a liking to Ahlo, and together they hatch antics that get the two families kicked out of town in a quick minute, fanning Taitok’s animosity toward the boy. Toma’s patience with Ahlo begins to wear thin, though Warin’s untextured acting dampens the drama.
The band of misfits trek to Purple’s old village, which is riddled with “bombies”, dormant grenades that resemble fruit. Needless to say, they move on. The film begins to feel like a road trip movie at this point, which isn’t a bad thing at all. They stumble upon a community on the eve of a “rocket festival”, in which the townsfolk build makeshift rockets out of bamboo and gunpowder, and launch them into the heavens, a ceremony meant to ask god for rain (a draught has driven the town into a bit of a panic). The rocket that soars the highest gets a large cash prize. Determined to prove that he isn’t a bad luck magnet to his grandmother, his father, and most importantly to himself, Ahlo decides to enter the competition. The film’s climax is entirely predictable, but the cast’s strong performances make every story beat feel earned.
The Rocket is a feel-good family film that evokes the winning dazzle of the best Disney pictures (the animated ones, especially), but without the patronizing sentimentality. Mordaunt’s fable unravels organically, constantly showing us something new and exciting. (A foot chase sequence is set to James Brown’s “Get On the Good Foot”, and it feels so right, and not off-putting or cheesy in the slightest.) Though simplistic in plot, the film avoids feeling schematic due to its setting, which carries inherent themes of shifting traditions, economic hardship, and a history of war. These themes permeate and lend the film depth. The Rocket is technically an Australian production, but it’s an excellent picture Laotians can be proud to show off.