One of the least widely-reported tragedies of the 20th Century was the heavy American bombing of Laos, which took place between 1964 and 1973 as part of the so-called ‘Secret War’, in which the US supported the Royal Lao Government’s campaign against the Pathet Lao. During that period the US dropped more than 2,000,000 tons of ordnance on Laos in an estimated 580,000 bombing missions – the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for nine years – which makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Local people, NGOs and charities have worked tirelessly for decades to make Laos safe again, though this process is still ongoing today: unexploded cluster bombs are a particularly dangerous hazard for farmers working the land and children, which is hardly a surprise given the amount that landed in muddy fields.
Bombs and bomb casings are a part of daily life in Laos, the latter resourcefully turned into anything from cutlery to motorbike sidecars to stilts for houses. We see these objects occasionally in Australian director Kim Mordaunt’s film The Rocket, which is set in the karst-filled Laos countryside, while we also witness just how easily unexploded cluster bombs can be mistaken for something else entirely. We even see a family travelling incognito under a pile of unexploded bombs that have been unearthed during the creation of a new town; that they are forced to do so on a bumpy road is simply staggering. Mordaunt’s 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest also examined the day-to-day problems faced by Laotians, detailing the work of the Mines Advisory Group, while explosives and explosions feature heavily throughout this fictional debut: here the writer-director smartly turns them into a force for good.
The Rocket is the story of a small family who are forced to leave their home when the government announces its intention to build a new hydroelectric dam on a nearby river. It begins with Mali (Alice Keohavong) giving birth to a baby named Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe). Ahlo’s twin brother is stillborn, causing Mali’s formidable mother-in-law Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) to state that Ahlo should be killed as he may be cursed; she believes one twin must be cursed while the other is blessed, but Mali refuses to go along with her plan, and news of the stillborn twin is kept from father Toma (Sumrit Warin). We fast forward seven years and learn that the family is being forced to move on due to the government’s construction project. Initially they are promised a new house with running water and electricity, which Taitok believes goes against their traditions, but when the family arrives at the new town they discover that it has not even been built and they must live temporarily in a refugee-style tented city. More importantly, a sudden, unexpected disaster dredges up suggestions that Ahlo is a cursed child, and things go from bad to worse for the boy. However he also meets and bonds with a sympathetic girl named Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), who has lost her parents and looks after her drunken uncle ‘Purple’ (Suthep Po-ngam), a James Brown fanatic who styles himself after his hero. (The film’s heaviest irony is that Purple fought for the Pathet Lao as a child and now completely bases his identity on an American cultural icon.)
It’s a film that is given its distinct melancholic edge by its adult characters: Taitok is generally angry, Purple is drunk and haunted by his past and Toma is struggling with the responsibility he has to find a new home. However we tend to see things from the perspective of the two children, and there are also joyous moments as we follow them around village squares and markets, where they egg each other on and generally get up to mischief. Midway through the narrative begins to build up to an annual village rocket festival, a competition with a prize of 5 million kip (just over $600) for the winner. Desperate for the money so that they can build a new house, Taitok orders Toma to enter, but Ahlo also has designs on the cash and sets about gathering the required material.
Though it has sad, poignant moments, Mordaunt’s film is actually a gentle, feelgood tale, and though it is set a world away it even reminded me at times of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine: a dysfunctional family on the move throughout, similarities between the characters played by Alan Arkin and Steve Carell in the American film and those played by Po-ngam and Yindi here, and also the importance placed by the end on a child’s performance in a pageant. Of course the lives of the characters are vastly different and the settings could hardly be further apart, but the basic ideas pushing the narrative on are similar at least. The Laos countryside here is captured beautifully by cinematographer Andrew Commis, with cliffs rising and falling for as far as the eye can see. It is a land filled with hidden dangers, though, which Mordaunt deftly draws our attention to without ever allowing his film to veer off into the realm of angry political statement. The performances are good, with the two youngest cast members impressing in particular.
Directed by: Kim Mordaunt.
Written by: Kim Mordaunt.
Starring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Suthep Po-ngam, Sumrit Warin, Bunsri Yindi, Alice Keohavong.
Cinematography: Andrew Commis.
Editing: Nick Meyers.
Music: Caitlyn Yeo.
Running Time: 95 minutes.