- Directed by Kim Mordaunt
- Starring Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Pho-ngam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong
- Opening film of World Film Festival of Bangkok, November 15, 2013 (additional screening on November 24)
- Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5
Having seen the Lao-Isaan family tale The Rocket, it's now easy to understand why it's been winning awards on the festival circuit and why Australia was so enthusiastic about submitting it to the foreign language category of Hollywood's Academy Awards, where many critics believe it might actually have a chance at being nominated.
Written and directed by Kim Mordaunt and filmed in Laos and Thailand with a mostly Isaan-Thai cast, The Rocket is a rousing, crowd-pleasing, inspirational story of a boy who is cursed with bad luck from birth. But he remains determined to escape his ill fate and hold his family together, even if they are the ones who believe he's an unlucky burden.
Young actor Sitthiphon Disamoe remarkably anchors the cast as Ahlo, a boy born under portentious conditions. When it's discovered he has a stillborn twin brother, the boy's Akha grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) says that he should be killed according to traditional beliefs that one twin is good while the other brings evil. "What if he's the bad one?" granny asks.
But the mother (lovely Australia-based actress Alice Keohavong) is immediately protective. She gets granny to agree to not tell the boy's father (Sumrit Warin) about the twin and dotes on the kid.
Flash forward to years later, and Ahlo has grown into a clever, good-natured brat, who loves to spend his days in his boat, fishing in the river.
But a string of heartbreaking tragedies cause the grandmother and father to think the boy really is bad luck.
The latest indignity is they've been ordered to leave their home to make way for dam construction. They are packed off to a hellish relocation camp, where everyone is living under makeshift tents made of waste plastic and bits of tin. Meanwhile, fatcats involved with the Australian-backed dam project are living in houses and have electricity and running water.
Ahlo makes it his main goal is to find land for his family, so he can plant the seeds to the prized "Mali's mangoes" of his mother.
But Ahlo's penchant for mischief gets the family thrown out of the camp. Joining them on the road are a couple of other outsiders who very nearly steal the show – drunken Uncle Purple and the little orphan girl who lives with him.
Purple, an elderly man who fashions himself after James Brown, with a lavender outfit like the Godfather of Soul, is played by veteran Thai actor-comedian Thep Pho-ngam. Usually bald, Thep completes his ensemble with a thick head of black hair, styled just like Brown's. He's an interesting character, whose love for American funk and soul stems from his days serving with the Americans during the Vietnam War-era "Secret War" in Laos. A bumping Brown tune is licensed for the soundtrack, and really livens things up. But Purple has been through a lot, hence his love for liquor, and it's his dark past that provides knowledge that proves helpful to Ahlo.
Joining Ahlo in his quest is the orphan Kia, a girl who is just so darn cute, it's actually a bit scary. A screen natural, she's played by Loungnam Kaosainam, who was in a recent Lao production, the country's first thriller, Anysay Keola's At the Horizon.
But the real revelation in the extremely strong cast is Bunsri Yindi, another veteran Thai thespian. She's been in countless Thai films, TV series and commercials, these days usually playing a very sweet or benign granny. But as the Akha matriach Taitok, she shows a commanding mean streak, and if the movie has an evil villain (aside from the dark forces relocating families for dam construction), it's her. Nonetheless, when push comes to shove, Taitok is just as devoted to the family as Ahlo, and it's the silver pieces from her tribal headdress that keeps them going through the tough times.
Eventually, the family finds their way to a rocket festival, where Ahlo suddenly he decides he's a rocket scientist and believes he can win the contest, earn the cash prize and buy his family some land in the area.
The chaos of the rocket festival is an entertaining glimpse into a quirk of Lao-Isaan culture that will likely fascinate foreign viewers and attract backpacking hipsters to the Lao-Isaan countryside. Aside from the hilariously casual acceptance of the unpredictable, ever-present danger posed by amateurs handling huge, explosive projectiles, there's also the "dick committee" – village elders sitting around measuring the giant wooden penis amulets that are also part of the fertility rite.
Another element that threads its way into the movie is the millions of tons of unexploded ordnance littering the Laotian countryside, thanks to the American military's carpet-bombing of the country during the Vietnam War. At one point, Ahlo and his family hitch a ride on a cart full of rusted bomb shells. It's driven by a one-armed, one-eyed man who presumably lost his limb and peeper trying to salvage one of the many "sleeping tigers" to sell as scrap.
The Rocket is in fact an outgrowth of a documentary Mordaunt did in 2007, Bomb Harvest, about an Australian bomb-disposal specialist who trains locals in his skill while also trying to educate children about the dangers of scavenging bombs.
Criticism of The Rocket has mostly come from Laos' nascent filmmaking community, and their knock against the picture – the first Lao-language film to be an Oscar hopeful – seems to be that the writer-director is Australian and the cast and crew were mostly Thai.
The Rocket is also contentious for Lao government officials, who've bristled at several things shown on screen – particularly the depiction of forced relocation of villagers to make way for hydroelectric power projects, which is a huge industry for Laos' old-school communist government. As the "battery of Asia", Laos and its dam-building spree is feeding an insatiable hunger for electricity, particularly for Thailand and increasingly China.
Other elements that will keep The Rocket from ever being publicly shown in Laos include a traditional naked birth scene, and those carts full of bombs, which are an unpleasant sight that Lao minders would likely rather be forgotten.