Directed by Kim Mordaunt
Set against the lush backdrop of rural Laos, this spirited drama tells the story of scrappy ten-year-old Ahlo, who yearns to break free from his ill-fated destiny. After his village is displaced to make way for a massive dam, Ahlo escapes with his father and grandmother through the Laotian outback in search of a new home. Along the way, they come across a rocket festival that offers Ahlo a lucrative but dangerous chance to prove his worth.
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★★★★ review by Craig Minett on Letterboxd
An emotionally engaging feel good film that has a darker undercurrent running through it. The film directed by Kim Mordaunt is set in Laos and shows a country dealing with the fallout of the secret war during the 70's, the place is now littered with thousands of unexploded bombs (Sleeping Tigers).
The cinematography by Andrew Commis captures the beautiful country perfectly, but he also captures the darkness of a country that's been devastated by war and is now in the process of having the natural resources exploited by major corporations and leaving the indigenous people homeless.
The film starts with a young woman (Mali) giving birth to twins, one of the twins is stillborn and we see the young woman and the grandmother (Taitok) bury the one twin, we learn from the grandmother about a superstition where one twin is lucky and the other brings bad luck, but which one has survived?
The opening of the film sets up the home life and community of the surviving boy (Ahlo) and we witness the family being told they will have to relocate as their home is going to be redeveloped. During the move an accident involving Ahlo causes the death of his mother Mali, this starts us down a darker path as we witness the grandmother and father start to believe that Ahlo is bringing them bad luck. As he starts to feel isolated from his family he meets a young girl (Kia) and her Uncle (Purple). Two families with broken pasts are brought together by the boy and we see Ahlo want to prove to his family that he can bring them luck by entering a Rocket competition.
The story is beautifully told and when the sentimentality is starting to get a bit thick the director brings the realities back to the fore as the dangers that lie within the country and the effects the war has had on the locals are shown to us first hand. Kia's Uncle has the darkest backstory, we see an ex soldier who in order to forget his past has become an alcoholic.
Overall the film is simplistic in its storytelling and full of clichés, but it's hugely entertaining and will leave a smile on your face after the wonderful finale.
★★★★½ review by Chris 🔮 on Letterboxd
ahlo's smile towards the end made me start crying instantly ... wow
★★★½ review by Rod Sedgwick on Letterboxd
This Australian production set amongst the poorer village sectors of Laos, throws many things into the mix and despite feeling authentic to it's region and beautifully filmed and performed, it doesn't seem to fully explore many of it's most interesting thematic tangents. Touching on corporate insensitivity and class struggle in a land affected by post-war poverty, the film chooses to focus on the human element in a boy that is said to have bad luck from birth due to local superstitions. In an attempt to overcome his lot in life as bestowed upon him by his Grandmother, Ahlo uses his forcefully strong will to help his family and friends rise above their humble circumstances by becoming involved in a 'Rocket festival', and attempting to win the life-changing prize money on offer, even if building and launching a crudely formed rocket could end his life. The film succeeds by it's winning charm, quirky characters (including a James Brown impersonator), and universal appeal as a feel-good crowd pleaser, but it's resonance is diluted by leaving some of it's grander themes underdeveloped.
★★★★ review by alexandra on Letterboxd
Australia's Foreign Language film submission to the 86th Academy Awards, The Rocket is a heartfelt film that treads familiar ground but nevertheless finds heart and soul of its own.
Echoing films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and Whale Rider, The Rocket tells the story of ten-year-old Ahlo, believed by his father and grandmother to be a bearer of bad luck as their family and community is in turmoil due to the construction of a dam over their home.
Director Kim Mordaunt has constructed a complex portrait of Lao culture, and it's often difficult to believe that it's coming from an outsider. The performances, from the kids in particular, are stunning and at its core The Rocket is a charming film with a meaningful message under the surface.
★★★½ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd
A couple of years back (and I say a couple of years, it was probably over a decade ago now) I remember being bowled over by a charming little film about a called The Cup (yep, just checked, 1999 - how time flies). The film, which followed a young monk in his efforts to find a way to watch the World Cup telecast, was filled with warmth and raw emotion. I adored it. I had it on dvd somewhere but I imagine I lent it to someone who was equally taken by and, I guess, they took it.
I'm not idly reminiscing; The Cup, which was an Australian/Bhutanese co-production, was actually the first Bhutanese feature film ever to be released internationally, a distinction shared by Australian/Laotian co-production, The Rocket. By comparison, Australia's creative input into this film is far greater; its writer/director, Kim Mordaunt, hails from Sydney, but remarkably, this outside influence in no way detracts from this heartfelt tale, which remains strongly rooted in the Laos experience, its traditions, its concerns and its energy.
Where Australia's impact on the film is felt most keenly is in its funding of the dam that dislocates young Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) and his family from their traditional village. The developers promise of a brand spanking new village, complete with running water and electricity, divides the family down generational lines. Ahlo's forward thinking mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), is excited about the change, while his ballsy grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), a traditionalist to the core, laments the loss of her ancestral home.
Unbeknownst to Ahlo, his mother and grandmother have been at odds since his birth. Their village traditions hold that when twins are born, one brings good luck, the other bad. Inevitably, not knowing which is which, means the killing of both, but Ahlo's brother was already dead at birth and his mother pleaded for her living child. Taitok relented and helped bury the secret but she never forgot and when tragic consequences befall the family she is quick to lay the blame at Ahlo's feet.
Plucked from a life on the street, Sitthiphon Disamoe brings every ounce of his hard-earned life experience to the role of Ahlo. His natural charisma and bravado explodes off the screen but he also has an absolute command of the lonelier, more pensive side of his character, the side that is struggling with the idea that he might actually be a responsible for his family's litany of bad luck. The only other actor who can match Disamoe's energy beat for beat is Thai superstar, Thep Phongam as Purple, an eccentric alcoholic, outsider, ex-soldier and James Brown devotee who becomes a surrogate grandfather to Ahlo. He is an absolute scene stealer.
The Rocket is small scale entertainment that serves up more than its allotted share of joyous power. Mordaunt's background in documentary film making (his previous film, Bomb Harvest, was also filmed in Laos and was a clear a jumping off point for this feature) has given him an eye for naturalism; indeed, the on-the-shoulder work of cinematographer Andrew Commis often blends imperceptibly with documentary footage the pair has shot, most impressively at the rocket festival at which the film culminates. Their exceptionally executed approach has given The Rocket an free-flowing immediacy that adds to the film's natural humour, its cultural veracity and, ultimately, its immense emotional impact.
The Rocket may be an intimate story but it is also a powerful statement of the importance of dignity and respect in the face of globalisation and development. On top of all that, I have to say that in a week that's been filled with news of the most hideously populous-pandering colonialism in Australia's corridors of power, it has been a recuperative to witness what Australians can do when we work in partnership with the global community rather than cruelly locking them up. I'd know where I'd prefer we expend our efforts.
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