THE ROCKET (2013)
Running Time: 96 mins. Rating: 4 Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Kim Mordaunt
Language: Lao with English subtitles
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Cast: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungam Kaosainam, Suthep Po-ngam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohvaong
Part National Geographic, part Hallmark Hall of Fame and even some leftist political points, make up this exotic fare called THE ROCKET. THE ROCKET is filmed mostly in rural Laos, but also some in Thailand, and is directed by Australian Kim Mordaunt—whose documentary BOMB HARVEST in 2007 deals with efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs in Laos, known as per capita the most bombed country in the world. THE ROCKET is right up his alley, then, as he focuses principally on the superstitions of a country that fell victim to a covert U.S. campaign by the Strategic Air Command with B-52’s in 1969 and 1970 to blast away at Viet Cong targets set up over the border and known as the Secret War.
THE ROCKET is favored principally by a terrific performance from Sitthiphon Disamoe as Ahlo, a ten-year-old kid who falls under a curse. Since he was a twin whose sibling was stillborn, it was not known which was the evil child and which the blessed one, according to Lao superstition. The boy’s aim is to prove to be the latter, which he can do by winning the annual rocket contest, filmed during the actual event by Andrew Commis. The boy’s best friend, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) is a girl about his age, an orphan who is theoretically cared by her alcoholic uncle Purple (Thep Phongam—a Thai comedian with an impressive resume), a man who think he’s James Brown, wears his hair accordingly, and trots out a few dance steps to the beat of the soul singer.
As for the leftist political message, the folks in the village are being displaced by modern imperialism, in this case a project of the Australian government to build dams, which would create electricity but would allegedly favor only Australian corporate interests. (The production notes tell us that 60 million people around the world have already been displaced by dams alone.)
The mountain people, miserable and now living in tents, need a scapegoat: Ahlo, suspected by animists and perhaps some Buddhists of being cursed, is the obvious target—a kid motivated not only to prove himself blessed but to restore his relationship with his emotionally distant father Toma (Sumrit Warin) and judgmental grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi). Nor does it help the kid that the accidental death of his mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), is blamed on him.
The co-production of Australia, Laos and Thailand, entered by Australia as a candidate for an Oscar this year for films in a non-English language, is principally a coming-of-age drama about a child who feels guilt about being born a twin blamed for the death of his mother and who seeks redemption via a victory in the rocket contest. The contest itself is a metaphor: since Laos was carpet-bombed in ’69 and ’70, the rockets would in effect lift the armaments back up to the sky. Does the kid win the contest? I won’t tell, but get ready to see his rocket bring about a particular unplanned benediction for all the people of the village.
Isn’t it interesting how some people can become solid actors without going to a school to learn song, dance, and ability to convey dialogue? Sitthiphon Disamoe was recruited as a street kid, a boy from a family of seven children whose parents could not afford to keep him. He was turned out to the street, the sort of fellow who travelers to Mexico and third-world countries see selling Chiclets and trinkets to tourists. The characters speak Lao, with good English titles for our benefit.
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