The Rocket (2013)

Review first published by LWLies (note that this is a longer edit).

If The Rocket opens with the birth of two boys (one DOA) in the north mountains of Laos, then it is also in many ways itself a twin, sharing genetic material with Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt’s previous Bomb Harvest (2008), about an Australian bomb disposal specialist in Laos. Yet The Rocket shifts focus from a foreign worker to a local child who must grow up in a rapidly changing landscape amidst the superstition that he may be a cursed twin – and it also adopts a magical realist template for its narrative, while still remaining haunted by the documentary concerns of the earlier film.

Uprooted from his village by the construction of a new dam, bereft by an accident of his beloved mother (Alice Keohavong), and scapegoated by his new community as well as by his own grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) and father (Sumrit Warin), ten-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon ‘Ki’ Disamoe) throws in his lot with a war-damaged James Brown obsessive (Thep Phongam) and a young orphan girl (Loungnam Kaosainem), all in the hope of finding fertile ground in which to replant his family’s mango tree.

This is classic, indeed predictable, male coming-of-age fare, with Ahlo’s entry into manhood and assimilation into society phallocentrically signalled by his sowing of seeds and climactic erection of a big, explosive rocket. Yet in setting this populist fable in rarely seen Laotian locations, and taking in along the way all manner of ‘local colour’ (animist custom, socioeconomic commentary, postwar trauma), Mordaunt brings a freshness to these otherwise stale waters, and slyly reveals a country in transformation, struggling to preserve older traditions against the irresistible encroachments of (exploitative) modernity while exorcising the ghosts of recent history.

Owing to the prominence of chiropteran guano in its combustible mix, The Rocket also represents a surprisingly literal formula for batshit cinema – which is further  earned by the inclusion of several surreal flourishes (the funk dance moves; a ‘dick committee’ of Buddhist monks with expressly penile fireworks). All this, twinned with Andrew Commis’ stunning mobile camerawork, yields a crowd-pleasing ethnographic myth for a globalised era.

Anticipation Good buzz from its Australian release.

Enjoyment Familiar furnishings, but in a fresh setting with a spectacular view.

In Retrospect A Lao-brow fable that resonates richly with the realities of globalisation.

Anton Bitel