The Rocket

The repercussions of the past are felt in more ways than one in The Rocket – an elegantly-told and spirited yarn which hints at a magical realism, while keeping its (at times, sobering) feet firmly on the ground. In the dilapidated, war-scarred country of Laos, an old superstition deems a baby named Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) as the harbinger of bad luck from birth, when his twin brother is stillborn. A decade on, the young boy and his family are forced to relocate from their soon-to-be purposely flooded village. Ahlo is still being labelled a curse, and that accusation is sadly magnified when his insistence on talking his cherished boat cross-country results in tragedy.

Relocated to a temporary, slum-like housing encampment, the deflated Ahlo strikes up a much-needed friendship with a similarly-aged orphan girl and her uncle – the local drunk who (somewhat bizarrely) models himself on the late soul superstar, James Brown. Both fractured families embark further upon their journey to seek a permanent home, which draws them to an area where an annual rocket-launching festival is held to encourage the end of the country’s dry season. Contestants are encouraged to create their own home-made rockets, the result of which will be judged on how far these creations can travel upwards (designed, ultimately, to antagonise the gods). Ahlo sees this is a potential means of redeeming himself and enters the competition with his father.

The Rocket is the confident feature debut of Australian director Kim Mordaunt, whose documentary background (particularly his previous work within the film’s setting), serves him well here. He makes excellent use of the many found locations and creates a sense of urgency and disorder within the stunning, yet incredibly dangerous backdrops (unignited incendiary bombs from the country’s past military activities are sprinkled around like discarded pieces of litter).

Mordaunt is keen to touch upon the devastation caused by the ravages of war, big business interference and unwelcome western imperialism, but for all the misery and hardship the characters encounter, the film is far from a gloomy experience. It’s punctuated with good humour (Ahlo’s feisty, sharp-tongued grandmother is an absolute joy) and there’s a sense of hope and destiny simmering underneath (the emotionally upbeat ending is entirely earned).

The director gets some great performances from the mix of professionals and newcomers in the cast, with Disamoe really registering as the young protagonist. Like the film, he has a lot of heart and an abundance of energy, however misplaced it sometimes appears to be. Annoyingly, The Rocket missed out on a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at this year’s Oscars (this is the kind of emotionally-rich fare which is usually met with much enthusiasm by the Academy). It’s their loss however, as this utterly charming, fable-like coming of age tale will live longer in the hearts and minds of audiences than the usual awards-laden features.