Dir. Kim Mordaunt | Laos/Australia 2013 | 96:00 | Lao with English subtitles | Rated G
November 10, 2013 | 5:30 PM EST | The Royal | Toronto Premiere
The Rocket is one of the best films of the year. It might be one of my favourite films of all time. Despite its deceptively straightforward plot – a family must relocate after a dam project encroaches on their village – the film evokes questions about the instability and dangers of tradition as well as the legacies of war through a young boy’s coming-of-age.
When Ahlo (played by Sitthiphon Disamoe, who won a Best Actor award for his performance at the Tribeca Film Festival) is born, his grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) urges his mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) to kill him. Ahlo is the surviving twin (his sibling was stillborn) and in their village, tradition says that twins bring good and bad luck. If only one twin survives, there is no way to tell which one is blessed and which one is cursed. Mali refuses to kill him, and makes Taitok promise that she will not tell Toma (Sumrit Warin), her husband, about his true birth.
Several years pass and Ahlo is now a young boy, mischevious, defiant, and stubborn. When the local officials tell the villagers that they have to relocate since the new dam will overwhelm their current land, Taitok stares down Ahlo. Her suspicision about his birth has clearly stayed with her, and when she exchanges silent looks with Mali, it seems that even his mother is unsure about the ominous signs. When the family begins to move their belongings over the mountain to their new home, and Ahlo demands on bringing his beloved boat. His mother’s decision to bring the boat with them sets off a series of seemingly irrevocable occurrences on his family. Is it just bad luck or fate?
For Ahlo, there is no difference. Ahlo embraces his birthright by defiling the sacred shrines of other villagers at their new home. His new friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) tells him that the shrines are for the dead. For Ahlo, however, his survival has been defined by the death of his sibling. If the nature of his existence defies the traditions of his family, then stealing food and flowers from shrines is a meaningless act to him; it is engulfed in the fate of his birth.
The Rocket is full of these beautiful double-edged signs weaved into the archetypal actions and choices of childhood. What does it mean to be a child growing up in post-war Laos? The film tells us that what appears to be benign, such as a hard-shelled fruit on the ground, can also be a bomb; or how the peculiar James Brown fascination of Kia’s uncle Purple (Thep Phongam) covers a sinister American legacy.
Though it’s been compared to films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Kim Mordaunt’s debut does not have a fantastical element. It’s obviously inspired by his documentary work on post-war Laos, but everything is “real”. The meaning changes on how you choose to view it, and that can be terrifying or fantastic.