Directed by: Kim Mordaunt
Starring: Boonsri Yindee, Alice Keohavong, Sitthiphon Dismoe
Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the World. It’s a startling statistic, which highlights the extensive human cost left in the wake of America’s conflict with North Vietnam. In 2007, director Kim Mordaunt traveled to Laos to shoot Bomb Harvest, a documentary following a group of trained disposers who dealt with the unending amount of unexploded devices that continued to litter the country. What he found was a nation still suffering from the ramifications of America’s ‘Secret War’, where children tried to make a living by selling potentially explosive bomb parts as scrap metal.
Those undoubtedly affecting experiences are what form the core of The Rocket, an international favourite from the 2013 festival circuit. Ahlo is a young boy, whose dominating grandmother believes will bring bad fortune to those who surround him. Having suffered a family tragedy and been forced to leave home, Ahlo travels the Laotian countryside with his close family and friends; plagued by bad luck and complications. However, an opportunity to take part in the country’s Rocket Festival finally gives Ahlo a chance to prove he isn’t cursed.
Throughout Ahlo’s journey, the scars of war and the continued dominance and power of the West are writ large against the beautiful yet besmirched backdrop. Unexploded devices of many shapes and sizes rest mere feet from where young children play, while whole communities are forced to leave their homes in order for Western companies to develop further construction projects. Though there are moments when his thesis feels too heavy-handed, the director’s observations remain admirably restrained. As a writer, Mordaunt shows equal thought and interest in the characters driving his narrative as he does with the themes running through it. Though the muted story stumbles into cinematic sentimentality during the final act, there remains an effective realism to the characters that accentuates the depth of Mordaunt’s ideas.
Particularly effectual is the decision to predominantly tell the story through the eyes of Ahlo and his new friend Kia. Juxtaposed against the haunting motifs of danger is the joyous nature of childhood, infused with freedom and limitless imagination. The exceptional performances from first time actors Sitthiphon Disamoe and Loungnam Kaosainam naturally capture the excitement of play, instilling the film with happiness and warmth that balances with the film’s darker reflections.
Though filled with talent, the real star of The Rocket is DoP Andrew Commis, whose cinematography viscerally contrasts Mordaunt’s moving observations with the film’s youthful perspective. The vast, uncut long shots of the countryside awe-inspiring, the frenzied tremors of an explosion are terrifying, and the joyful energy of Ahlo and Kia’s fun is infectious.
The Rocket marks the first time Mordaunt has a directed a fictitious film. Rooting his story in a reality he has already experienced gives the film a poignant authenticity on a subject many are unlikely to know about. While his ability to exude such widespread pain through the playful eyes of children allows The Rocket to be both heartbreaking and heart-warming in equal measure.
The Rocket is out on DVD now.