It’s been a while since I reviewed a film that didn’t involve zombies or science fiction in some way. Figured now would be a good time to get back to those arty films all the film students pretend to like so much but really they haven’t seen them because they all just watch a checklist of the most commonly known successful films in recent film history. This is The Rocket ladies and gentlemen!
The Rocket is a Laos language, Australian produced, film following a young child name Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) as his family are uprooted and he attempts, as best he can, to improve their rapidly declining situation. Ahlo has been branded as cursed due to a belief held in his village that twins are bad luck. His twin didn’t survive birth but that was enough for his grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) to believe that he will bring bad luck to the family. A concern Ahlo’s father Toma (Sumrit Warin) is having an increasingly difficult time denying. When the family is ordered to move from their village, due to its impending flooding from the construction of a new dam, the decision by Ahlo’s mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) to bring his boat along, despite the traversal of a mountain being involved, results in a tragic accident that Ahlo is soon blamed for. The family’s fortune continues to fall so Ahlo, determined to prove he’s not cursed, decides to compete in a rocket competition to win enough money to turn his family’s lives around. They are joined by the orphan Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her James Brown obsessed uncle nicknamed Purple (Suthep Po-ngam) who each carry their own history with them.
Whilst rural set tales of South East Asian life, filled with cursed people and the onset of industrial growth, are oddly fairly common The Rocket does manage to keep it’s head above the potential “me-too” mire by being a genuinely charming and expertly crafted film. The central themes of the film do tend to skip about a lot for the early part, often commenting on the destruction of tradition in favour of the previously mentioned industrial growth before quickly moving onto Anti-war messages followed by showing civil people turning on their own out of pent up anger. For a while this can feel a little like Ahlo and his family are being dragged through a series of polemics on Laos history but soon you’ll understand what it was all for.
Essentially, what the film is really about, is striving to break destructive cycles. Ahlo represents a people constantly under scrutiny, often the target of hate, that just wants to break free of the pattern. He is endlessly optimistic and focused in his desire to improve the status quo despite constant reminders that he is said to be cursed. Sitthiphon Disamoe does a pretty superb job playing his role. Especially impressive as it is his first acting. As is the case for Loungnam too. Both children do side a little too close to appearing to be more mature than their years, but that could be for a number of reasons. The writer’s adult voice coming through in the script or it could easily be a reflection of the extra hardships the characters have been through that the average child you may know wouldn’t have. The moments when Ahlo and Kia take time to play do quickly remind you that they are just children surrounded in a land scattered with unexploded bombs left over from the war decades earlier. The actions of past generations creating a dangerous present for them.
The film is shot largely handheld but not in that faux documentary style I wish would die out. Shots are steady, perfectly composed and filled with the kind of texture and colour that helps make these kinds of films really pop. Would be nice if Western produced dramas would try employing the occasional colour instead of layer after layer of grey. There’s a number of shots that just plain stick with you either for their beauty or the tonal quality they evoke.
A pair of scenes early on are played in parallel that manage to define a lot of what the film is about through use of mise-en-scene (there’s a phrase I don’t use enough of here) and good old fashioned juxtaposition. In it Toma is sat in a stark room watching a presentation narrated from a recorded message of the fate of his village and the use of clear lies regarding the new homes they’ll be moved too. He knows this is false but really has no choice. The land he lived on has been sold. Meanwhile Ahlo has made his way up to the top of the already present dam and has taken a swim in the captured lake it produced. Under the water he sees the ruins of temples and homes that have been covered and lost to the ongoing need for this dam. The fact his home will soon be just as lost is likely not lost on him. The scenes tell us that destructive cycles continue in a way that is often at the expense of tradition and the lives of people that have very little. Decisions made by much wealthier people treading on the poor.
Director Kim Mordaunt does a pretty impressive job of making a foreign language film actually feel like it comes from the country of origin, despite being Australian herself. I’d liken it to how Gareth Evans did such an impeccable job of capturing the energy of Asian action cinema in The Raid films. The Rocket isn’t shot in a style I’d ever associate with Australian cinema at all. I’m not familiar with her other work, although there’s a good chance I saw the episode of Home & Away where she played “nurse”, so I have no idea if this film is in keeping with her other films. If it is, then she could well be a talent worth watching. The careful pacing, the beautiful shots and the excellent performances, that could have so easily fallen into cliché, show signs of a director that really agonises over ever aspect of her work. She had previously made a documentary about the bombs left in Laos from the US “Secret War” called Bomb Harvest. I have a feeling that would serve as an excellent companion piece to this. It doesn’t appear that that film has been released in the UK though.
Overall The Rocket is a superb film, one of the best I’ve seen this year in fact. Whilst it’s message may appear heavy handed early on the gradual progression from being a piece condemning current conditions that many Laos people must live with gives way to a compelling family drama with an optimistic and uplifting final act. The message of the first half is still there but it now informs and enriches the story rather than dictate it. Highly recommended viewing.