Kim Mordaunt’s magnificent drama, The Rocket, screening at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival in the Official Competition, is fresh from winning the Best Narrative Feature, Audience Award and Best Actor (Sitthiphon Disamoe) at the TriBeCa Film Festival. It is an optimistic and spirited tale of a young man's personal journey to alter his destiny.
The story of The Rocket follows Ahlo (Disamoe), a ten-year old boy whose family are forced to relocate after an Australian energy company announces the construction of a dam set to flood their area. Considered bad luck in the traditions of the family as he is delivered into the world preceding a stillborn twin, Ahlo finds himself the blame for the string of misfortunes that fall upon the family.
After a tragic accident and the forging of a friendship with a young girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her outcast uncle, Purple (Thep Phongam), Ahlo’s father (Sumrit Warin) begins to believe that the prophecy is true. Ahlo must prove his worth to his family as they come to terms with the economic change that threaten their livelihood, with their future reliant on the most unlikely of events.
The Rocket covers similar themes to Morduant's last film Bomb Harvest, a documentary about an Australian bomb disposal specialist who leads a team to rid Laos, the most bombed country, per capita, on the planet, of the bombs left from The Secret War. In The Rocket we get a sense of the ongoing danger local civilians (who I believe were involved in assisting the teams) find themselves in. There are remnants of the past found on every stage of Ahlo's journey for a brighter future. What is brilliant about this film are the fairytale qualities. The realities are grim, but stemming from the child's innocence, courage and his intoxicating sense of hope, it is brimming with tender, heartfelt moments.
The rural, impoverished regions of Laos where the film is set are scarred with littered remnants of the past. The dislocation of residency for agriculture results in many families losing their homes and having to leave many untransportable assets behind. They don't possess the means to start again, as is required. From my experience with cinema previously, this is a new world, and the poverty, unique tribal traditions and the living-on-the-run hoping for luck was shocking. Despite this affecting context, Mordaunt balances tone very well, and the often-overwhelming optimism should leave most viewers in a state of pure joy by the end.
All of the relationships built in this film are complex and beautifully drawn. Ahlo’s bond with his father is in the wake of tragedy and though he loves his son, he insists on taking leadership and making rational decisions on what he believes is best for the family. Ahlo and Kia’s friendship is very sweet, and with Kia left the responsibility of looking after both herself and her uncle, she’s as much a fighter as Ahlo. For Ahlo, Uncle Purple, a suit wearing, liquor swigging, James Brown fan (sure to be a crowd favourite), becomes a stand-in father figure. He’s a man who understands that the adventurous Ahlo cares deeply for his family, but feels betrayed by their lack of belief in him. He offers timely wisdom and a realistic outlook on the situation. There is credible emotional drama that affects each one.
Kim Morduant has evidently built a remarkable rapport with all of his actors, especially the youngsters, which is all the more impressive as most have little-to-no acting experience. Possibly relating to their characters and understanding the hardships, their energy and enthusiasm burst off the screen, their emotions resonate.
For such a tiny budget, the photography is amazing. Whether it is a widescreen capture of Ahlo standing before a monumental dam wall, the down-and-dirty ground-level capture of a bull pulling a boatload of belongings up a muddy hill, or the bustle of the Rocket Festival in full swing, the sequences are stunningly brought to life. The score is beautiful and there are a couple of terrific uses of James Brown songs. The small story is embraced and made handsomely cinematic.
It is hard to explain what is so wonderful about The Rocket without giving away more than I dare to, so I recommend that you find out for yourself. With subtle humour and eccentric characters, this moving story of family tragedy, residential displacement and tribal conflict is as entertaining as it is importantly grounded. It is a masterwork from Mordaunt and his crew. Expect to hear a lot more about it in the near future.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.