I’d always imagined Laos to be wet and steamy.
Until well into Kim Mordaunt’s uplifting film The Rocket, I was struck by how dry and dusty was the landscape in which it is set. It transpired that the region was in the grip of drought and desperately wanting rain. It might seem a minor point, but it typifies the way in which Mordaunt lets the story – which is as much a parable as anything – tell itself without hand-feeding the viewer.
Also pleasing (and a relief) is Mordaunt’s disinclination to make simplistic and cloying ‘unspoilt ethnics’ of his subjects. These villagers are as corruptible as any of us in the West (the bosses at the hydro station have electricity, the workers don’t) and vengeful enough to destroy a family’s shelter when they feel that their presence has brought ill fortune.
Ahlo (Sitthiphone Disamoe), being a twin (whose brother was stillborn), is deemed by tradition to be cursed. He, his parents and cantankerous granny are forcibly removed from their home because modernisation in the form of a new dam will flood their valley – the powerfully symbolic underwater scene, in which he comes upon the submerged statues of Buddha, makes a neat bookend with the triumphant concluding shot.
Seeking a place in which they might resettle and plant the mango seeds from their abandoned garden, they join up with Purple (Thep Phongam), who wants to be James Brown, and his beautiful little niece, Kia (Loungnam Kaiosainam).
The prospect of their travails being lightened by winning a competition for rustic rocket builders brings to the narrative a predictability that, if obvious, never detracts from the progress of its participants.
The performance of both children is phenomenal – for mine, Kaiosinam steals the show – and the naturalness of Bunsri Yindi as the nagging dowager provides welcome vinegary humour.
The ending is pure Hollywood for an art-house audience that might wear as a badge of honour its contempt for Hollywood, but even if it’s as corny as anything Spielberg would dare, I found it immensely satisfying.
~ John Campbell