The Rocket was one of the films at Tribeca that I’d planned to see much earlier in the festival but unfortunately couldn’t get to until later. This Australian production set in Laos won both the audience award and the jury prize for Best Narrative Feature; child star Sitthiphon Disamoe received the jury prize for Best Actor. At The Berlin Film Festival in February, The Rocket also won Best Debut Feature and a Crystal Bear (sort of like a Best Children’s/Young Adult Film).
When I finally saw The Rocket, I really wished I’d seen the film sooner. The Rocket is one of the breakout narrative films on the festival circuit. Once it finds US distribution, The Rocket may become 2013’s unlikely darling like last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild.
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Director: Kim Mordaunt
Country: Australia (though the film’s language is Lao)
Release Date: TBD
There are so many odd coincidences about Beasts and The Rocket even though they’re distinct films with their own identities. Both Beasts and The Rocket are debut features for their directors (Benh Zeitlin and Kim Mordaunt, respectively); both films are filled with non-professional actors and feature children in lead roles (Quvenzhané Wallis and Disamoe); both are beautifully shot; and both dwell on themes of family, home, tradition, mortality, displacement, progress, and outsider status. Instead of primordial aurochs as reminders of death as in Beasts, The Rocket uses unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War referred to as “sleeping tigers.” In a bit of magic reversal, the story eventually involves other kinds of rockets with a much different aim: to bring rain and renew the earth rather than to destroy the land.
The Rocket follows a Laotian boy named Ahlo (Disamoe) who’s convinced that he’s cursed. He was a twin, and even though his brother was stillborn, he was supposed to have been killed at birth according to village customs. His grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) reminds him that he should be dead multiple times as the family situation goes into a decline. It all begins with a sudden tragedy and it continues to snowball from there. Ahlo is convinced that he needs to redeem himself even though he’s not sure how.
There’s a kind of magic burbling beneath the facade of The Rocket, which may have a lot to do with the story being filtered through Ahlo’s eyes. It gives everything Ahlo does a quest-like feel even if it’s something as simple but meaningful as planting mango seeds. Rather than an intellectual take on a child’s perception of the world, The Rocket is situated firmly in Ahlo’s POV; those adult concerns about history, culture, and the uncertainty of the future are there, but they add texture to the adventure rather than supplant it, which means the film remains small and childlike at heart.
Ahlo, his family, and their neighbors are displaced from their village so that a company can flood the valley and construct a dam to generate power. Ahlo is dwarfed by the current dam in the area. He’s a speck on the screen with it, like something out of Ico, and it’s a tremendous bit of visual wonderment in a film that’s full of other sorts of wonders thanks to cinematographer Andrew Commis. This gigantic monument to progress blocks up another flooded valley that once contained another village and way of life. By swimming in the water of the dam, Ahlo finds scant remnants of another displaced people. It’s just more culture disposed, more traditions forgotten, more people displaced — they were flooded out by invading interests rather than blown up.
The displaced villagers are promised housing and arable land once they leave their homes, but they’re cheated out of both. The soil in their temporary resettlement area is dry and dead, and their livestock has barely any place to graze. The area itself is overcrowded with other suckered people. As for housing, they’re given rusty siding and old sheets to make meager dwellings. Some shrines and traditions are carried forward in this shantytown, but in frustration Ahlo destroys them wherever he goes. Not only is he cursed with bad luck, but there’s little reverence for his own culture, one that’s doomed him but is also dying around him. All this dourness may serve as a background allegory for the state of Laos today.
Ahlo’s life gets changed by meeting some fellow displaced outcasts: a James Brown-obsessed man named Purple (Thep Phongam) and his niece Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam). Purple’s got the James Brown moves, the posters, the suit, and the haircut, and he’s also got a bit of a drinking problem. All he needs is a belt with “JB” on it and a bit more soul power. Admittedly, this is one of those details that could have seemed too quirky and insufferable in another film, but a character like Purple feels just right in The Rocket.
The infusion of some Western culture makes sense thematically, historically, and in-story (i.e., outside cultures imposing on indigenous cultures), and there’s also a real human sadness to the character that balances the idiosyncrasy. Purple is both a clown through Ahlo’s eyes and a broken man who’s experienced the horrors his own country’s history for decades. There’s a kinship between Ahlo and Purple since both seem cursed in their own ways. This addition to the film’s ensemble adds both to the fairy tale quality and human depth.
The Rocket is mostly devoid of supernatural and fantastical elements even though it feels like a fantasy of some kind. I think it’s part of how the film captures the feeling of childlike awe in the world, where there’s a little potential for magic and adventure even if it’s just the result of luck. Highlighting this sense of intuition is just one way I can praise Mordaunt’s direction on The Rocket. I can’t really speak to the delivery of the Lao dialogue, but the tone and facial expressions feel right on an emotional level. The imagery feels right because it captures a kind of warmth and spirit pervading the film. The Laotion culture and its people never feel exoticized, which is sometimes a danger when less capable hands spin tales set in other cultures. But nothing feels forced or coaxed about The Rocket.
To that, there’s such an unassuming quality to The Rocket. It’s not a film that’s baiting for awards or attempting anything manipulative or overly sophisticated. That kind of cynicism would undermine the beauty of the story. The Rocket simply tells its charming tale, and it never tries too hard to be anything other than what it is, which happens to be a heart-warming and crowd-pleasing real-world fairy tale. This is fine storytelling with its feet rooted in childhood and its fingers in magic dust and gunpowder, and it’s pulled off in such an undeniably winning way.