The world through a child’s eyes is not always filled with a sense of wonder and hope. At least not in the case of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a young Lao boy who has had it tough literally from the moment he was born. The only twin to survive birth, his brother died stillborn, Ahlo’s grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) deems him to be a curse as he lets out his first breath of life. According to Laotian superstition, when it comes to twins, one will bring good luck, and the other bad. Ahlo’s mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) ignores such warnings, not even telling her husband Toma (Sumrit Warin) that Ahlo is a twin, as she is determined to raise her son with unconditional love. However, when tragedy strikes Mali, the rest of the family notice their fortunes getting increasingly worse.
After his family, along with the rest of the villagers, find themselves displaced, so that developers can demolish their homes to make way for a dam, Ahlo becomes the scapegoat for much of the anger in the community. So it comes as no surprise that Ahlo befriends the two other outsiders in the region, nine year-old Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her James Brown loving, purple suit wearing “Uncle Purple” (Thep Phongam). Though considered a drunkard by the rest of the community, Purple seems to have the most clarity and wisdom of all the villagers. When one of Alho’s stunts forces his family and Kia’s to flee their current surroundings, they come across another drought-laden village that is holding a rocket festival. The festival features a contest in which villagers build rockets to shoot up to the gods in hopes of bringing much-needed rain. The winner receives money and a plot of land to call their own. Seeing this as his last chance to find a stable home, Ahlo is determined to enter the contest and prove that he is more than just a curse.
Though Ahlo’s fortunes may not be great, the same cannot be said for Kim Mordaunt’s narrative debut. After winning the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Amnesty International Film Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Rocket swooped into Reel Asian and picked up the National Bank First Feature Award. It is not hard to see why the film is leaving an impression with audiences around the world. Mordaunt’s film strikes an emotional cord through the way it not only shows Ahlo’s hardships, but the struggles that the poverty-stricken Laotians encounter on a daily basis. As remnants of the Vietnam War still linger, most notably the unexploded bombs and grenades that litter the land, Mordaunt paints a picture of a culture being buried by the advancements of big business. The displaced villagers are promised decent homes with electricity and money for their troubles, but find themselves in shanty towns with far worse conditions than where they came from.
Mordaunt does a good job of capturing the despair and anger that Ahlo and the villagers feel. In one great sequence he juxtaposes Ahlo finding cultural statues underneath the lake with a scene of the villagers being given a sales pitch on why their homes will be destroyed. Mordaunt’s film reaches its peak, from a visual standpoint, when he highlights both the excitement and possible danger that the rocket festival brings. It is a wonder how Mordaunt was able to orchestrate some of those scenes.
The Rocket is a film that succeeds because of the earnest way it blends superstition, luck, and historical lore. Though a straightforward narrative, Mordaunt provides a hero that we unabashedly want to root for…regardless of whether or not he is cursed. Sweet, but not overly sentimental, The Rocket is the perfect example of how to do underdog stories right.