A story about a young boy overcoming obstacles and family problems is really nothing new, but an Australian movie called The Rocket puts a whole different spin on those ideas.
A ten-year-old boy in Laos named Ahlo seems to bring bad luck to his family. He is the surviving twin at birth and believed to be cursed according to local tradition, a belief reinforced by his ill-tempered and superstitious grandmother. Life goes on without incident until Ahlo’s family is forced to relocate because of a dam building project that will flood their village. That’s when trouble begins. Ahlo’s mother dies during their move through the countryside to a shanty town after a government promise of a new house, good land, water and electricity. More trouble follows.
Ahlo befriends Kia, a 9-year-old girl, and her strange uncle named Purple, both considered village outcasts. Purple is an enigmatic yet charismatic dysfunctional man obsessed with the American soul singer James Brown, complete with purple suit and Brown’s hairdo to match. Purple is also a drunk, hooked on rice wine.
Ahlo ignores his father’s warning to stay away from them. Through their association, Ahlo ends up accidentally causing a series of mishaps including a fire that eventually lead to their banishment. They hitch a dangerous ride out aboard a bomb disposal truck hauling cargo left over from massive American bombing raids during the 1970s.
The journey takes them to a rocket festival where Ahlo is determined to win the prize that would buy them a new home and end all the misfortune that’s been blamed on his birth. Ahlo’s rocket entry, literally fueled by Purple’s bizarre knowledge of explosives and bat guano, provides a stunning conclusion to their odyssey through the Laotian landscape.
The Rocket is Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt’s first feature film after a career in documentaries. VOA’s Ray Kouguell spoke with Mordaunt, based in Sydney, about the two young characters who are the movie’s heart and soul, and how his previous work influenced the decision to choose Laos as the setting.
MORDAUNT: It was one of those things that took the producer and I to that region ten years ago and we ended up living in Hanoi and working in Vietnam and traveling a lot to Laos. It wasn’t really a conscious decision to make a film. It was more about we lived in the region and then came to make a documentary there which was Bomb Harvest. That really was a reaction to going to the country of Laos and finding out about its history and just going “my God, why don’t we know about this country?” So really it was sort of a reaction to living and working in that region.
KOUGUELL: During the filming in Laos and Thailand, was one location more difficult than the other?
MORDAUNT: I’d say definitely Lao. Thailand’s got this really well-oiled film industry and so in terms of bringing on support crew and in terms of getting access to locations [it’s much easier]. Whereas in Laos, because it’s still a Communist country, there’s still censorship, there’s still a lot of red tape. That was very difficult but we did shoot the rocket festival, all that’s shot in Laos. All the landscape you see in the film is Lao.
KOUGUELL: What was it like to cast the film and communicate with your cast?
MORDAUNT: That’s not easy. It took a long time to cast the film. And first of all, the producer and I did a lot of traveling around both Laos and the Lao-speaking area of Thailand. Then we worked with a casting agent and eventually we found the little girl in a small drama group, a sort of puppet drama group, on the outskirts of Vientiane which is the capital of Laos. I think she just had a very, very strong sense of self.
And for him, we’ve been looking a very long time and he waltzed through the door with all that attitude and he had been a street kid for a couple of years, so he’d learnt to survive in any way he could. So he was a great little wheeler dealer, a great little talker. Anything he put his hands to, he could sort it out. That aligned really well with the character of Ahlo. I was working through a translator. But then again I’ve also been around the language for a good ten years now. You’re working with play, you’re working with imagination. You’re working very physically. I’m watching their eyes, I’m watching their body language and you’re trying to find truth on all those levels.
KOUGUELL: The rocket festival is certainly key to the film. Are such rocket festivals common in other Southeast Asian countries?
MORDAUNT: You’ve got them in Thailand but it’s the Isaan people in Thailand, many of whom are Lao heritage. But in Thailand, it’s probably more of a formal event. You know, they’re big rockets but it’s often sponsorship. It’s a little bit more formal whereas in Laos it’s still very wild west and you get many more rocket festivals in Laos. They happen all around the country at the end of dry season for the calling of the rain.
KOUGUELL: In addition to the fascinating narrative you put together in the movie, would you say there’s really some underlying message?
MORDAUNT: Thematically it’s about, I guess, first world countries recognizing the impact they have on third world countries, not only in war but in industry and then on a very personal level. I think the main message is that there’s this country with incredible courage. I think the people of Laos are very courageous, and very spirited people who have suffered greatly but who are trying to survive. And it is an underdog story which is something I think we recognize all around the world.
KOUGUELL: There is much to savor in The Rocket more than just the unusual location and story. There are great performances from Sitthiphon Disamoe as Ahlo, a marginalized twin who seeks redemption, Loungnam Kaosainam as Kia, the young girl who effectively portrays a sweet fearlessness of her own, and Thep Phongnam as the crazy Uncle Purple whose absurdities are a perfect match for all the indignities surrounding them. Director Kim Mordaunt shows a great eye for telling their story about tradition, pain, and optimism in a world rarely seen. The Rocket is well worth the ride.