Photo: Eureka Entertainment
During the Laotian Civil War more than 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, by both US and Laotian air forces, 30 percent of which failed to explode immediately. These unexploded bombs, so-called ‘sleeping tigers’, litter the landscape of Kim Mordaunt’s multiple award-winning feature, The Rocket. Mordaunt reflects their latent energy in the communities we see being pushed out of their land and their traditional way of life; in the huge dams responsible for this; in his protagonist, the young and effervescent Ahlo, and in the strange, traumatized, James Brown-obsessed veteran ‘Purple’.
Ahlo is bad luck. Born a twin (supposedly both evil and unlucky) he inadvertently causes his mother’s death, setting off a chain of events which see his family left penniless and homeless. When the family are forced to move to a resettlement camp because a new dam is set to flood their land, Ahlo befriends the drunkard Purple, so-called because of his dishevelled suit (a nod to his idol), and Purple’s charming niece Kia. As a result Kia and Purple’s lives become closely entwined with those of Ahlo, his father and his grandmother. It’s the children that carry film, and their shared losses make the two fast friends. Searching for somewhere to plant Ahlo’s mother’s mangoes, cheekily haggling with market-vendors or just playing in the immense fauna of the landscape, these two make for captivating and endearing guides through a beautiful but fragile country. This is the Laos that your usual western traveller doesn’t experience; the one where a war that ended 39 years ago is still causing damage, where tradition is being pushed to the margins and housed in corrugated iron, where bloody ghosts are thought to haunt the caves in the mountains and where living off the land is becoming more and more impossible.
Ahlo’s fierce and terrifying grandmother is the film’s bastion of an old way of life. She carries the family’s wealth around in her traditional headdress, which seems to be losing a coin a minute thanks to the family’s bad luck, and barks orders at her son and grandson like an angry colonel. She is a bong-toking, foul-mouthed wrinkled little ball of fury, and is the one who criticises Ahlo so fiercely that he starts to believe he’s no good. Hope comes in the form of an annual rocket festival; the prize is more than enough to save the family and Ahlo is sure he can win with Purple’s help (the phrase bat-shit is taken to a literal level of extreme as a result). It’s certainly a spectacle, with huge wooden scaffolds littering a field waiting to receive immense and terrifying home-made rockets made by tibetan monks and lunatics alike. The rockets themselves seem to be all fire and no spark though, and the same could be said for this film. It’s incredibly earnest, and acted with refreshing emotive sincerity by the young leads, but it feels entirely familiar. The glancing criticisms of the U.S. involvement in the war (Purple was a child soldier for them), or of the environmental impact dams are having on Laos, are fascinating and moving and important, but everything else feels a little obvious.
Overall The Rocket is immensely watchable and indeed immensely beautiful, let down most by an ending which wraps everything up a little too neatly. Perhaps, though, there is value in that. Childlike wonder and a lack of cynicism are something we could always do with a little more of.
The Rocket will be released in selected cinemas nationwide on 14 March 2014