During the making of his 2007 film, Bomb Harvest, director Kim Mordaunt was inspired by the experience of young people in Laos who make their living extracting for sale, the metal and explosives from bombs dropped during the ‘secret war’ in the 1960s-70s. That such a huge risk was taken by children just to survive was demonstrable of a tragic tradition of innocent lives being exploited in a country reportedly the “most bombed place on the planet”. The Rocket (2013) is Mordaunt’s tribute to this mostly unrepresented culture, with the only other Laotian film to date being Good Morning, Luang Prabang (2008), a romance about a photographer falling in love with his tour guide.
Taking the child’s perspective in a survivalist tale, much like Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), in Mordaunt’s The Rocket adults are either superstitious, irresponsible or absent, with the resourceful fearlessness of children ultimately providing for the future of the family. Beginning with the birth of Ahlo (Sitthiphon ‘Ki’ Disamoe) – the surviving twin believed to be cursed by his Ahka tribe grandmother – we then jump to ten years later when Ahlo lives happily under the protection of his mother. When the construction of a new dam forces their village to relocate, Ahlo is blamed for a the further tragedy that befalls his family, and what follows is his attempt to reverse his bad luck, making new connections with a young girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her uncle along the way.
Despite his experience in documentary, knowledge of and empathy towards the Laotian people (or perhaps because of it), Mordaunt’s The Rocket stays firmly in the tradition of a classic underdog story, with Ahlo’s disadvantage finally being the thing that allows him to take the risk necessary to secure land for his family. Shooting on location with the cooperation of an actual rocket festival, cinematographer Andrew Commis achieves an impressive verisimilitude between actual footage and post-production VFX, whilst naturalistic performances from minor players underscore the actuality of the setting. However occasionally the gorgeous cinematography belies the difficulty the characters face, creating a difficult dichotomy between Laos as a tourist destination and the unique and mainly unrecognised turmoil of the country.
Disamoe and Kaosainam both give remarkable performances – the former drawing on his own experience living on the streets – making it easy to see why the film has won so many audience awards, including at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. And yet there’s a superficiality and predictability to overall proceedings that fails to do justice to the individuals involved. From the film’s very title to the moment when Ahlo begins constructing his rocket, the plot is mapped out for us complete with characters seemingly borrowed from a Sundance indie – grumpy grandma, stern father, eccentric uncle, cute best friend, etc – which is perhaps why The Rocket was chosen as the Australian submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film; a safe evocation of a people whose daily life is anything but.