Ten year old Laotian boy, Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) is believed to bring bad luck and is blamed for a string of disasters. When his family loses their home and is forced to move, Ahlo meets the spirited nine year old orphan Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her eccentric uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an ex-soldier with a purple suit, a rice-wine habit and a fetish for James Brown. Struggling to hang on to his father's (Sumrit Warin) trust, Ahlo leads his family, Purple and Kia through a land scarred by war in search of a new home. In a last plea to try and prove he's not cursed, Ahlo builds a giant explosive rocket to enter the most lucrative but dangerous competition of the year: the Rocket Festival.
Review by Louise Keller:
A window peeps into unexpected corners of post-war Laos life in this poignant tale in which a young boy tries to shake the burden of a curse from his young shoulders by sheer determination. Kim Mordaunt's debut feature has a character and mood of its own, couched in its harsh, arid landscape, enhanced by Caitlin Yeo's ethereal music score and inhabited by a diverse cocktail of characters that include an alcoholic former soldier modelled on rocker James Brown and an angelic little girl with a missing front tooth. Mordaunt, whose 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest canvassed similar themes, impresses by delivering a unique and complex work with context and heart.
It is in the heart-wrenching opening sequence when Mali (Alice Keohavong) gives birth to twins, that we learn 'one is blessed; one is cursed'. Only one survives, but the question remains, is he cursed and will he bring the family continued bad luck? Ten years later, the bad luck begins: a new dam is built and the village is relocated. The roadtrip that follows is the beginning of the story with cheeky-faced Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) carrying the stones from mangoes his mother plucked from a 400 year old tree, hoping to plant them in fertile soil.
There's little connection between Ahlo and his father Toma (Sumrit Warin), while Ahlo is blatantly aware his grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) believes he is cursed. It is not until Ahlo meets Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), tossing purple flowers from the boughs of a tree and her eccentric, unconventional uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), the former soldier whose escape is his embodiment of James Brown and the bottle of white spirit he keeps close by at all times. Ahlo's life is a much of a minefield as the landscape on which unexploded bombs are strewn.
It is the local rocket competition that offers Ahlo an opportunity to shake the monkey off his back and prove to his family for once and for all, he is not carrying the mantle of bad luck. There's a nice natural crescendo as Ahlo defies the odds to create the explosives for his rocket from bat splat, copper and his own urine. With its themes of loss and redemption, The Rocket is effective, simple storytelling with many layers and a film that tells more stories than its narrative suggests.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Although it's a simple story on the surface, there are layers and layers of complicated historical and social elements that bubble throughout this work. And how could there not be, set as it is in contemporary Laos, where filmmakers Kim Mordaunt and his producer Sylvia Wilczynski made the 2007 doco, Bomb Harvest, revealing the work of Aussie bomb disposal expert Laith Stevens.
The work put into that film is a solid backdrop for this narrative feature, about a fictional 10 year old, Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) and his quest to prove he's not the cursed survivor of a twin birth. This takes the form of making a rocket for the lucrative rocket festival which is held annually to shoot a rocket up the rain god's bum, as the locals so earthily put it.
But Ahlo has a few problems to overcome first, not least his antagonistic grandmother, Taitok, played by Bunsri Yindi in a wondrously grumpy performance. She disliked him from the moment he was born, believing him to be cursed; that's a hard handicap for any kid to overcome. Thep Phongam as Purple is another colourful character whose James Brown obsession provides both musical and comedic elements to a story that is dramatic but not heavy.
Working with an untested cast, Mordaunt uses all the tools at his command to engineer a film that has won major awards at TriBeca, including Best Actor for the young Disamoe. He relies on plenty of coverage and the skills of talented editor Nick Meyers to make sure we get the best results. And thanks to Caitlin Yeo's delightful score, we also get the right emotional cues.
What is at stake is the survival of a family under stressful conditions: relocation to make way for a new dam. Progress is funny though, they have no electricity, thanks to the hydro bosses selling it all over Asia and taking the rest for themselves. The words Animal Farm kept repeating in my head ...
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ROCKET, THE (PG)
CAST: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Phongam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohaving
PRODUCER: Sylvia Wilczynski
DIRECTOR: Kim Mordaunt
SCRIPT: Kim Mordaunt
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrew Commins
EDITOR: Nick Meyers
MUSIC: Caitlin Yeo (& featuring The Dynamites, James Brown)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Pete Baxter
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Curious Film
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 29, 2013