Australian actor turned director Kim Mordaunt’s “The Rocket”, Australia’s foreign Oscar submission, is both a realistic view of rural Laos and a fairy tale of redemption.
It’s a narrative feature debut for Mordaunt, whose award-winning documentary Bomb Harvest” followed a team of disposal specialists trying to rid impoverished war-torn Laos of the millions of un-detonated bombs left over after the U.S. Secret War. Laos, used as reprisal staging area by the U.S, is the most bombed nation, per capita, in the world,
Mordaunt, returned to Laos to capture some of the realities of the Laotian culture and peoples he had grown to know and love during the shooting. He and producer Sylvia Wilczynski have worked in Laos on and off for 10 years, researching and shooting. The film shows the remarkable spirit of villagers whose country has never been rebuilt after “The Secret War” and now endures rapacious Globalized “development’ of their resources for export.
The story begins at night, in a Laotian Hmung village. Mali (Alice Keohavong gives birth to twins. One’s stillborn. Ahlo survives. Superstitious grandmother Taitok, an Akha Hmong woman, believes that in all pairs of twins one is traditionally good luck and the other evil, and since there’s no way to know which Ahlo (nicknamed “small balls”) is- he should be killed. Loving Mail refuses and in the dead of night Tailtok buries the evidence of the other twin. Not even Ahlo’s father Toma (Sumrit Warin) knows.
(Two decades ago, it was common to kill newborn twins to cleanse the village. Nowadays the mother and newborns are banished to the forest to protect the village from bad spirits, and the father sends support from his village. Infertile urban Laotians adopt the children freeing the Akha from the curse.)
Ten years later. Ahlo’s village lacks electricity and running water. But there are no plans to provide it, instead, the villagers are undergoing forced resettlement. Their fertile ancestral land will be displaced by a dam and hydroelectric plant, serving greater Asia.
They’re given no time to pack. Loving mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) wraps up precious Mangos from their 400 year old Mango tree, explaining. “One tree will seed a thousand more”. Father Toma (Sumrit Warin-“The Burma Conspiracy”) and grousing granny Taitok, begin to push their few belongings up a hilly path, where unexploded bombs nestle in the tall grasses, trying to catch up to the larger party.
The village is on the move, hurrying to meet the corporation’s trucks. Ahlo goes back for something; doting Mali follows and him and dies in a dreadful accident. Granny Taitok can stand it no more, “He should have died in the womb like his brother”, she screams. Even his father blames him.
Mordeaunt script summons a sort of magical realist what if; so much has gone wrong perhaps Ahlo is unlucky.
They press on to the promised Relocation Village, a modern village being built for them with toilets and modern conveniences.
They arrive at the Paradise compound at night. Dawn reveals a sorry site; half finished houses, no building supplies, or toilets. A representative from Nam Dee 2 Autralia-Laos promises the supplies will be there at the end of the month. Before she leaves she counsels, “please refrain from use the new bathroom, the toilets are overflowing.”
‘The land is terrible” moan the new arrivals, forced to live in lean-to’s made of scraps of plastic. Toma sets up a burial shrine for his dead wife. Ahlo won’t let him use a precious mango as an offering. “We’ll find land for the mangoes, you’ll see.”
In a scene of corporate/ state propaganda, the villagers visit an enormous dam, so that they will sign off of the march of “progress”. Ahlo sneaks off, climbs the ominous structure that’s torn up the land, and dives in, finding submerged statues of an earlier tribal settlement.
Clever Ahlo, full of life, never feels like a outcast, despite his grandmother’s constant attacks. He befriends enchanting Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), a 9-year old orphan raised by her disreputable Uncle Purple (vet Thai comic Thep Phongam), a bare breasted, purple-garbed James Brown fanboy who can do Brown to a fare-the-well. Uncle Purple, who proves endearing and wise as well as drunkenly irresponsible, has a secret. He survived the “Secret War” by collaborating with the Americans, and is, among other things, a demolitions expert.
Spunky Kia, another pint-sized fixer, picks high growing flowers and sells them in the compound’s Market. Ahlo tags along. Kia stops him from shooting the last monkey in the forest. He tells her he’s a twin, but outsider Kia doesn’t mind.
The hopeful “little adults” look on this world in chaos and try to make it right. It’s their world too and they regard it with a custodial sense of right and wrong. They bond, they’ve each lost parents; they are each ostracized, and each of them keeps their eyes on the positive.
Troma warns Ahlo to shun Kia and Purple, or the traditional villagers in the re-settlement camp will look down on his family too.
Ahlo could care less. He’s fascinated by the pair. One night he visits them. They sit in the dark. Their neighbors, “hydro-bosses”, have electricity. Ahlo shimmies up and clips onto the neighbors power line. Their lights all blow, but Purple’s got juice. As the angry villagers run around in the dark yelling, ‘Someone’s going to pay”, Purple finally gets to watch his James Brown VHS.
Prowling around the fields, bad-boy Ahlo steals food from a funeral spirit house. When Kia insists to puts it back, he gets caught. Fleeing irate villagers, he burns the shrine down by accident.
The villagers rampage. ‘Your son is the perfect scapegoat” explains Purple, convincing Troma to escape before the murderous rage of the locals. The families get past the search party hiding in a cart hauling undetonated bombs out of town.
The set off for Purple’s old village, a paradise of houses and fertile fields, but it’s deserted. The kids romp in the fields (like young Apu and his sister Durga in Pather Panchali) until Purple explodes a bombie they pic up as a toy. The field is littered with the edible looking homemade grenades stuffed with bullets.
The next village is about to have its annual rocket festival. Whoever shoots the highest rocket “up the ass of the raingod” will be rewarded with money and land, a new start. Resourceful Ahlo is ready. With lessons from Purple, and despite all odds., he will not be deterred, even when village elders refuse to let a boy launch a rocket. Making his father proud, he blasts the rain god, and storm clouds mass in answer. The village celebrates. “Luck Is In your family” yells a town elder, rewarding Ahlo with land and money. “Stubborn Bull Head…he gets it from me”, yells triumphant Granny, finally getting a home. He must be the lucky twin!
How ironic that a country seeded with un-detonated bombs, is also an animist country that worships the rocket. The Hmung, with their roots in ancient China, are animists.
The team plucks joy out of the war-ravaged countryside, it’s ravishing beauty and lurking ordnance dangers. Mordeant captures Laotian textures with the dispatch of a western director. His film is brisk; the children’s performances percolate. Editor Nick Meyers (“Sleeping Beauty”) and DP Andrew Commis (“Underground: The Julian Assange Story”) give the story, set against a dark globalized background, fairytale warmth.
The film won Best First Feature Film and the Crystal Bear at this year’s Berlinale.
Street kid Sitthiphon Disamoe, who plays Ahlo, won Best Actor Narrative Feature at Tribeca, 2013 where it also won the Audience Award- Narrative. Kino-Lorber will distribute “The Rocket” in the U.S.
Mordaunt was so knocked out by the young survivor Sitthiphon Disamo who’d been alone on the streets for two years by the time they met, that he rewrote and developed the part around him. His co-star, Loungnam Kaosainam is equally impressive, independant and resourceful; her eyes speak layers of understanding as she struts around the place. Energetic Bunsri Yindi, with her mobile face, is remarkable as tough Tailtok.