The Rocket (Australia/Laos/Thailand, 2013)
Laos is one of several countries in East Asia that are just starting to emerge as producers of cultural exports. Good Morning, Luand Prabang, one of the country’s first commercial films, was released relatively recently in 2008 and depicted the nation’s many landscapes while chronicling the romance between a tour guide and a photographer. The main reasons for this staggered productivity are hangovers from the Vietnam War – namely, the communist government still in place in Laos (as well as in nearby Vietnam), as well as hundreds of unexploded bombs in the nation’s vast rural areas. The Rocket director Kim Mordaunt has previously explored this dangerous side of contemporary Laos in his documentary Bomb Harvest (2007) and his first fiction feature presents another depiction of this context, as well as other issues that affect the Laotian people – such as a government determined to modernise, and the clashes between traditional and modern ways of life. The former issue has entailed that the film’s impact in Laos has been limited: the Lao government banned The Rocket for the negative light cast over the building of a hydro-electric dam, meaning that it has only been seen in other countries around the world.
However, The Rocket is not just concerned with criticising the country’s communist leadership. It’s essentially a rites-of-passage drama in which young protagonist Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) faces one hardship after another. The film opens with his mother, Mali, giving birth. When he is born, his twin siblings die during childbirth, which convinces Mali’s mother-in-law Taitok that Ahlo is cursed and must die. Mali refuses, and they keep it a secret from the father that Ahlo is a twin. Nonetheless, Taitok is determined to blame all the family’s hardships on Ahlo. They have to relocate because of the government’s project to build a hydro-electric dam, and Mali dies in an accident while they try to take their possessions when moving. The government’s promised new homes are also not built, forcing the family to settle in a makeshift slum. After meeting the young Kia and her uncle Purple in the slum, the family eventually decide to try and find a new home after not mixing well with its other inhabitants. Eventually, the family find a town where a rocket competition is happening, and decide to enter so they can claim the prize money and build their own house.
The title may be somewhat misleading because of the relatively late appearance of the rocket festival, but the many episodes are held together by Ahlo’s intent to find a place in the world. Just as he is settling into a routine of foraging and fishing to help support his family, his home and mother are taken away from him. His efforts to give electricity to everyone at the slum lead to the whole family being kicked out. Tired of criticism from his grandmother and others, he is determined to find redemption in the rocket competition and make his family’s life better. However, Ahlo is also stubborn and wants to build his own rocket. This stubborn nature is what leads to some earlier clashes and accidents in the story, but also moments of humour and joy. While Ahlo has to battle against the influences of modernisation, and the rigid traditional beliefs of many rural communities, he finds happiness and friendships that he cherishes in between moments of drama and tragedy. The danger of mines and grenades are present in the landscape, but they also provide Ahlo the means by which he can take part in the rocket festival.
The Rocket is an even-handed attempt to explore life for the Laotian people. Modernisation and urbanisation may be a threat to some ways of life, but maintaining remote rural communities and outdated beliefs are also criticised. The countryside is presented as lush and beautiful, and stagnant waters and unexploded artillery shows the dangers that it hides. The town that hosts the rocket competition is portrayed as a wondrous, but not perfect, fusion of rural and modern ways of life, suggesting that there is hope for the future of Laos (as does the trajectory of Ahlo). Although the multiple story threads and characters may not always smoothly intertwine, The Rocket is believable throughout with a hopeful message that is constantly encouraging.