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Laura Blum


Laura is a festival correspondent covering films and the festival circuit for filmfestivals.com. She also publishes on Thalo

 


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"The Rocket" Blasts towards the 86th Academy Awards

 

Palm fronds swaying in the breeze, moon-lit mountains, petal-strewn altars: Laos may be the most paradisical place on Earth. But this paradise harbors a darker superlative: At nearly 80 million cluster bombs (minus the 500,000 that have been cleared), it's the most bombarded country per capita in history.

rocketposterLaos's beauty and bête noire are on full view in Kim Mordaunt's redemptive tale, The Rocket. The Laotian-Australian production centers on 10-year-old Ahlo, an artful operator who is born under a bad omen as a twin. Ahlo is held culpable for his family's accruing misfortunes as they're forced off their land to make way for the construction of hydro-electric dams by an Australian corporation. To overcome his jinx, Ahlo sets his eyes on the prize at the Rocket Festival. This rambunctious Spring ceremony, rooted in a traditional phallic rite, entails firing rockets at the sky deities to bring on the rainy season. 

One of the most memorable scenes in The Rocket plunges us underwater as Ahlo discovers buddha heads, wat ruins and sundry village detruitus that have sunken with the dam project. "It's a foreboding of what was about to happen to this ancient community and also what was going to happen to his mother," explained Mordaunt. Shot in a real hydroelectic lake, this haunting sequence anticipates the literal and figurative submerging of local culture, or what Mordaunt described as the "ghosting of their traditions by this Australian-Lao dam."

Behind this saga of dislocation lurk digs at today's economic aggression and its eerie echoes of the American strafings that drove a million Laotian peasants from their homes during the Vietnam War. Mordaunt probed the lingering fallout from that campaign in his 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest

With his fiction debut, the Australian writer-director now takes aim at Australia's dealings that he believes threaten to destroy indigenous Asian traditions and resources. "Australia does a lot of ethical business in Asia, but a lot of unethical business as well," he told me. Lamenting that developers are currently planning 52 dams across Laos, he stated, "That's really why I made the film -- I could see what was happening in Laos and elsewhere in Asia."

The Rocket, like its young hero, is out to reverse a curse. Happily, though, Mordaunt resists all temptation to AhloBlossomspreach. This makes The Rocket a far more cheerful experience than its war-torn landscape and unkindly taboos might suggest. Mordaunt is making a statement, but his bully pulpit is adorned with blossoms. An especially lyrical example is Ahlo's friendship with Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), which begins as the 9-year-old orphan literally rains down purple flowers on him from her perch in a tree.

Both fledglings revel in adventure while allowing audiences a close view of tender sorrows. Played by former street urchin Sitthiphon "Ki" Disamoe, Ahlo blends pathos and pluck with such naturalism it's sure to leave a nick. That Ki's performance would be so raw wasn't apparent from the outset of his new acting gig. At first Mordaunt "couldn't get to the core of his emotions," he recalled. "I thought, this guy is never going to open up because he's learned to protect himself on the street. It was only when the director shared that he too had lost a parent at age 10, like Ahlo, that Kai started to "talk about his losses" and to reveal emotion.

Mordaunt's ode to fallibility advances another unsung hero, Kia's Uncle Purple. The man who plays him, Thep Phongam, is a veteran Thai-Lao entertainer; he's also the only professional actor in the cast. Inspired by a Laotian villager that the director had met while making Bomb Harvest, this spiky war veteran fought alongside the CIA and displays a weakness for James Brown and liquor. He is both a wise man and a fool, an avatar -- like the ubiquitous explosives -- of conflict and a Laotian hippie who wields his ostracism as social critique. Both Purple and Ahlo recognize their pariah link, yet the older man's dysfunction ignite the boy's fuse to rocket towards something higher.    The-Rocket

The Rocket, with its totems and taboos, makes for a feast of archetypes and aphorisms. Garnished with humor and soul, it makes up in humanity what it may lack in narrative simplicity. "Lao culture is full of folklore," said Mordaunt, "so we decided we'd give the film a fable-like quality."

Armed with awards garnered at such fests as the Berlinale and the Tribeca Film Festival, Australia's submission to the 2014 foreign-language Oscar pool has resonated with cinephiles in various countries, though it has yet to be screened in Laos. Mordaunt was hardly surprised that it didn't clear that country's censorship board. "The dam issue is very, very political; it's worth hundreds of millions of dollars," he noted. But he has no regrets. "The Lao-Australian community didn't want to make a piece of propaganda."

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