VIFF 2013 Review: The Rocket

Ahlo, a Lao boy, attempts to win a rocket-launching contest to bring his family good fortune in The Rocket.
Ahlo, a Lao boy, attempts to win a rocket-launching contest to bring his family good fortune in 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.

9/11 Remembered

September 11, 2001: A day that will live on forever. A lot has changed in the ten years since. Air security is way tighter. Arabic names and words no one could pronounce previously have since become part of our everyday vocabulary. Entering the United States is more regulated. Being Arab American has made people more victim to racism than ever before. We have a no-fly list and a terrorism alert of color grades. We have people claiming conspiracy theories. We have had two wars declared since which has further divided political sides. We’ve caught many to do with the terrorism but have more to go.

Around this time, you will read many articles and views surrounding the events, political climates and beliefs of the writers. You will hear many stories from those involved to those who lost loved ones to those in political power. As for me, I won’t be focusing on such. Instead I will focus on the day as I remember it.

Tuesday, September 11th 2001 started off like any other day for me. I wasn’t yet 30 and had recently moved to Vancouver months earlier and living in a character house with at least six other residents at the time. I was off to work and listening to a radio show talking about a bizarre contest where people do crazy stunts for the sake of an entry. Things wouldn’t be the same after that. In the morning while I was on a break from my first job, I saw one of my co-workers laughing. When I saw him, he said a plane hit the World Trade Center. Some of you may think it was insensitive but looking back, I think he was laughing at the bizarreness of the event. When I first heard the news from him, I first thought it was probably a small passenger plane and it hit one of the Twin Towers by accident. That afternoon I was working at my second job for a government business. I heard one of my supervisors talking about what happened and saying that it could have happened to a building like ours. Hearing that, I started to think that this may not be an accident after all, but how?

Later on in the day as I was returning home, I saw news stories and images of the events that happened. There was even a second newspapers issued that day about the events. I saw one of the towers hit by an airplane was burning while another airplane hit the other tower. When I first saw it, I was in disbelief. I thought it was something that could only happen in the movies. Then hearing of other crashes like the plane that hit the Pentagon and one that crashed in a failed attempt to hit Camp David. Then hearing how all Worldwide commercial air ground to a halt. Then seeing images of people running and screaming for their lives as the first of the Twin Towers crashed down. The events were just completely unreal in my mind. Until then, I always thought hijacking a plane was always about the terrorist using plane passengers hostages for the sake of making demands. Until then, I’ve only heard of airplanes used as weapons during the Kamikaze attacks of World War II. I never thought that terrorist could use passenger planes for the sake of a suicide mission. The attacks on the Twin Towers also immediately brought back a memory of how back in 1993, the World Trade Centre was bombed but there were only five fatalities at the time. I also remember that the mastermind was a Muslim cleric. Remembering that got me thinking that the attackers had the failed attempt from 1993 in mind to bring the towers down for sure that time.

Then back at my home, I met with the other residents in my character house and we were all shocked. One who was visiting from the Netherlands even videotaped the speech from President Bush. The day was just completely surreal. All networks were focused on all the events that happened. There was no changing the other channel. It would continue to be that way for at least two weeks straight.

Days later, I would hear stories of those who died that day. There was even a memorial service broadcast from radio at my workplace that consisted of five minutes of silence. I also heard from those who lost loved ones. Even later on I heard even further details of the activities. Hearing about how some of the terrorists went to flying school to carry out those activities completely surprised me. Hearing how Al-Qaeda had a worldwide network with followers even in Canada shocked me. Hearing of these countries having weapons given to them by the United Stated puzzled me even further. Hearing the various reactions around the world also caught my eye. Most of the world, including many Arab countries, expressed their condolences to the events. There were some, like Palestinians, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, who considered that day a day of celebration. Then there were the speeches of Osama bin Laden. Already infamous for his years of bomb attacks on American embassies in other countries, he led the taunts. Shockingly he promised a ‘great day of terror’ weeks earlier.

Despite all the nastiness, there were also a lot of positives. The United States however refused to let it defeat them and a renewed sense of patriotism happened. New York City also developed its own pride in itself. People who used to diss the police and firemen and politicians almost immediately rallied behind them. Families would help out stranded air passengers during that time. Nations would come to the support of the United States and some other nations even lost citizens of their own.

Ten years have passed. Yeah, you could say a lot has changed. Even reflecting back on the happenings of that tragic day still boggles my mind. Commercial planes used as weapons for a suicide mission. Four flights hijacked with the intent to destroy four places. Thousands dead. I was never involved with it nor did I personally know anyone who died that day but even ten years ago, it does seem like yesterday.

Anyways those are my thoughts on 9/11. I just wanted to reflect on what I remember from that day. I didn’t want to get into any political speech or political thought. If you want any political thought from me, read my Osama bin Laden is Dead article. Since I wrote it, Al-Qaeda has elected a new leader. Whether he has the same sophistication as Osama or not is something only time will tell. I just hope there’s no massive loss of life in the process. There you go. That’s the most political I will get in this article.

I hope you liked what I had to say because that’s what I remember. I was never an actual part of the events. I never knew anyone lost that day. Nevertheless I still remember the constant broadcast of the day’s events and the atmosphere surrounding it. You can’t deny how much it’s changed the world and changed people. I end my article saying: God Bless the souls of those lost that day and may God continue to be with the families.