VIFF 2013 Review: The Rocket
The Rocket is Australia’s official entry for the Best Foreign language Film category for the Academy Awards. The question is how does it fare as a film?
The story revolves a young Laotian boy named Ahlo. Ahlo’s birth is supposed to be a happy occasion but is not as a stillborn twin is born shortly after. Even though Ahlo is the one who survived, the grandmother is still suspicious of him, believing that a twin can either be good luck or bad luck.
Ten years pass. Ahlo is a typical normal boy in his Laotian village protected by a dam from an Australian corporation. However all residents in the village have to relocate as the corporation is proposing a second dam which will flood the village. All the villagers including Ahlo, his parents and grandmother pack up to walk to their new home planned by the corporation. It’s a long walk to the area and they have to use a boat to transport their goods. Unfortunately while going up a hill, they lose grip of their boat and it hits the mother, killing her. Once again the grandmother feels Ahlo is a bad luck child. Even the father feels that sense.
When they reach the top of the hill, they learn their settlements are not finished, leaving everyone to create a temporary village of makeshift shelters for themselves. Ahlo continues to get himself into trouble and damages many properties. However he does find a friend in a young girl named Kia. Kia lives with her eccentric uncle in a small shack. She is an orphan, losing her parents to malaria and has a fear of water. Her eccentric uncle is a James Brown fan who dons his hairstyle and a purple outfit in his like. They make Ahlo feel welcome but the uncle is also shunned by the village, including Ahlo’s father who warns him to stay. Both cause problems: Ahlo with constantly getting into mischief whether with Kia or himself and Purple for stealing electricity. It’s right after Ahlo damages sacred areas in the village that they’re all chased out.
The five of them–Ahlo, the father, the grandmother, Kia and Purple–reluctantly travel to another rural village together. The village is only temporary as it is on an area littered with undetonated bombs that belonged to Americans during the Vietnam War. The father contemplates taking the family to the city where they can find labor jobs. This would mean Ahlo would never be able to see Kia or Purple again.
Ahlo gets an idea when he learns about an annual rocket launching contest held by the nearby village. The prize money is good enough for all to start a new life anywhere. Ahlo wants to make a rocket of his own but most believe it would be both dangerous and impossible for a child to construct a winning rocket for the contest. However Purple believes differently and gives Ahlo an idea. The father builds a rocket of his own to prevent Ahlo from entering. However Ahlo is stubborn enough to saw off a bamboo bush and get bat dung from a bat cave to make it.
The festival starts and Ahlo is still at work on his rocket. The contest is pretty chancy. The rocket has to fly straight in the air. If a rocket fails, the flyer is humiliated by being thrown into the muddy river. The contest is also dangerous as seen when one man’s rocket explodes with him launching. The result of the contest ends with a somewhat predictable moment. Many would have guessed the ending by now. However the full ending is a total surprise and a delight.
I will admit that this is a common formula of a person beating the odds to win. We’ve seen it before. However this does take a different turn of events. This is not simply about a simple child trying to win a contest. This is more about a boy considered a ‘bad luck charm’ trying to win good fortune to his family after so much misfortune has happened to them. The setting of an impoverished location like the bomb-ridden valleys of Laos may give some reminders of Slumdog Millionaire. The superstitious attitude of the Lao people comes off as a bit foolish. I guess it’s also here where the movie is attempting to defy the superstitions.
Some may see it as a family movie since this is a story of a boy who’s able to help his family out. However there are some things that many may feel are too dark or a discussion starter from children that’s too soon to happen. I’m sure if children saw this, they may ask about the country of Laos and why the people had to be moved. The images of all those bombs I feel is also too much for the children. Also questions about Lao tradition and believe, of why Ahlo suspect of being a ‘bad luck’ child because he’s a twin, will also be things parents would not be prepared to answer.
It’s interesting that this film is Australia’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars but it’s not in say one of the languages of the indigenous of Australia. Instead it’s in the Lao language. Also interesting is that it takes place completely in Laos. The Australian things about this film is that it was done by an Australian director and the films plot includes an Australian corporation building a dam which causes the Lao villagers to move. Once again this is a case of a film making one think about what would define a film from another country, especially one that’s running in such a category. It’s just like last year where Canada’s nominee Rebelle was a story situated in Congo and the winner Amour was an entry from Austria because of Austrian director Michael Haneke even though it was situated in France and in the French language. I guess that category is always subject for discussion.
One thing to take note of is that Laos has never submitted an entry into the Best Foreign language Film category ever. I don’t think that they would want to do it with this film as it makes Laos look like an impoverished country with undetonated bombs all over the place. A bit of trivia: director Kim Mordaunt once did a documentary released in 2007 called Bomb Harvest of Laos being a dumping ground of unused bombs by Americans during the Vietnam War. One thing to note is that Australia isn’t shown as the good guy as it’s an Australian corporation causing the people to relocate themselves.
This was very good work from Australian director Kim Mourdant. She has already had experience as an actress including being a former cast member of Australia’s famous drama series Home And Away. She’s started writing and directing in recent years. I’m unfamiliar with her previous works but this film is very well-written and well-thought out. She has to be very familiar with Lao culture and Lao tradition in order for this to look true. A great performance from newcomer Sitthiphon Disamoe. A street kid in real life, Disamoe is an excellent discovery for this film. Loungnam Kaosainam is also great and charming as Kia. Most of the main actors are newcomers with the exceptions of Sumrit Warin and Alice Keohavong, a Lao-Australian actress with a healthy resume in film, television and theatre.
The Rocket follows a familiar premise but adds its own elements into it. It makes for an impressive film that will cause you to think but also keep your faith in hope.