The adventures of a 10-year-old Laotian boy are subject to radically different interpretations in “The Rocket,” Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt’s impressive narrative debut. In a country where multinational interests are reshaping the landscape to suit their corporate needs, displaced villagers seek more familiar scapegoats to embody their misfortune — singling out, for instance, the film’s pint-size hero, Ahlo, whose scrappy determination propels the action. A kid-centric slice of intractable humanism in the mode of “The Kite Runner,” “Tsotsi,” “Whale Rider” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” this “Rocket” could launch globally.
The film opens on the birth of Ahlo (street kid Sitthiphon Disamoe), the only surviving member of a pair of twins. But twins, according to Laotian superstition, are thought to be highly problematic, one bringing good luck, the other bad. Ahlo’s mother (Alice Keohavong) has showered him with unconditional love from the outset, flatly rejecting her own mother’s urging that she kill him. Indeed, Ahlo’s grandmother (Bunsri Yindi), the only other person aware of the circumstances of his birth, remains his harshest critic. So when personal disaster strikes the family, she blames Ahlo and reveals his secret to his hitherto unaware father (Sumrit Warin), arousing conflicting emotions in the stalwart paterfamilias.
Ahlo’s pariah status increases when he befriends an impish 9-year-old beauty, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her disreputable “Uncle Purple” (vet Thai actor/comedian Thep Phongam), a shirtless, purple-suited James Brown aficionado who collaborated with Americans during the Vietnam War, and who proves endearing and wise as well as drunkenly irresponsible.
Meanwhile, Ahlo’s village is forced to abandon ancestral homes to make way for a dam. Their assigned new digs consist of cheap scraps of canvas and corrugated tin under a billboard promising “Paradise,” a town to be built at some unspecified future date; electricity is promised, but only to those in charge. When handy Ahlo provides his friends with a nearby electrical connection, the entire family is driven from its jerrybuilt home, hitching a ride on a cartful of the unexploded bombs that litter the countryside. A rocket-building contest en route provides Ahlo with a last chance to redeem himself in his family’s eyes.
Mordaunt previously directed a docu in Laos that featured kids who sold unexploded bombs for scrap metal, and that earlier experience invests this feature’s characters and milieu with an absolute integrity. No cheap exoticism or sentimental cuteness mars the authenticity of Ahlo’s everyday rhythms as he attempts to figure out the logic of his circumstances. Similarly, the helmer never resorts to any outside reading of the political forces at play; instead, the exploitation and flooding of entire villages to make way for a dam that serves no local interests are seen through the eyes of a child who must surmount his own image as the source of all malediction.
Poetically, at one point, when villagers are taken to another huge dam (to impress them with the project’s importance and inevitability), Ahlo plunges into the dammed-up lake, discovering an underwater treasure of exquisite statues belonging to a culture buried by “progress.”
A Curious Films (in Australia) release of a Red Lamp Film production in association with Screen Australia, Screen New South Wales, Curious Film, Ton Enterprises, Ecoventure, McCumsties@Margarietaville Fund, Milsearch, Milsearch Lao. Produced by Sylvia Wilczynski. Executive producers, Bridget Ikin, Michael Wrenn Triphet Rookachat.
Directed, written by Kim Mordaunt. Camera (color, widescreen), Andrew Commis; editor, Nick Meyers; music, Caitlin Yeo; production designer, Pete Baxter; costume designer, Woranum Puekpan; sound (Dolby Digital), Nick Emond; re-recording mixer, Sam Hayward; sound designer, Sam Petty, Brooke Trezise.
Cast: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Phongam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong.