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Film Review – The Rocket (2013) – 4 stars

The Rocket

The Rocket

The film The Rocket has won prizes at the Tribeca Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, and the Melbourne International Film Festival and after watching it last night I can see why because I loved the film too! I give it 4 stars. The Rocket is set in northern Laos against a backdrop of beautiful mountains. The story follows Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) who is a 10 year old boy living in a tiny remote traditional village with his mother Mali (Alice Keohavong), father Toma (Sumrit Warin) and grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi). Ahlo is a clever and self sufficient boy who fishes in the river and sells the fish at the market, fixes basic electric circuits and helps his mother Mali with dying fabric with indigo. He enjoys a beautiful bond with his gentle and sweet mother. Toma (Ahlo’s father) seems to be brow-beaten by Taitok who is strong-willed, outspoken, tough, superstitious and callous. Toma says very little in the whole film and seems to lack self determination.  Some of the aspects of the film that I found most thought-provoking were:

  • when Ahlo was born his mother also gave birth to a still-born twin brother. Taitok’s immediate response is that one of the twins is cursed and they must kill Ahlo but Mali begs to save the life of Ahlo. I saw the film with a girlfriend who is the mother of twins and I felt her gasp at this scene. It reminded me of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (set in Nigeria) where a pregnant woman has had to endure the casting away to die of her four sets of newborn twins;
  • Ahlo and Mali enjoy a beautiful bond

    Ahlo and Mali enjoy a beautiful bond

    when the Australian-Lao hydroelectric corporation announce that the village will be flooded to form a new dam, Toma sits silently and offers no resistance despite Taitok’s horror that they will have to abandon their traditional way of life, land, and livelihood. Mali believes the video by the corporation that suggests they will receive compensation and be resettled in comfortable new housing with electricity and running water. The report written by the World Bank suggests that the Nam Theun 2 project is committed to ensuring that the local people who are directly impacted by the project are fairly treated and compensated by assisting them to build improved and sustainable livelihoods;

  • when Mali dies in a tragic accident while leaving their village, Taitok condemns Ahlo as the cause and says that he should have died with his twin brother in the uterus and Toma offers no comfort to his grieving son and does not stand up to his mother. Obviously Toma is grieving too but it hurt to see Toma allow his mother to treat his son in that way;
  • when the family arrive at the resettlement camp (really a slum on wasteland with a pile of rubbish for the villagers to build their own dwellings, overflowing toilets and one tap), Toma does not complain and instead seems dazed and fatalistic. Other villagers complain to the Australian corporation representative that there is no grass for their cattle to feed on and their complaints are ignored so perhaps Toma realises that nothing can be gained from protest. Perhaps because he is from a remote village he also has an ingrained respect for authority that prevents him from questioning those with power over him;
  • Ahlo manages to make friends in the camp with the orphan Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her uncle Purple (Thep Phongnam). Purple was a child soldier for the Americans during the bombing of Laos by American B-52s (Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world) and is now an alcoholic and seems to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Instead of Toma being pleased that Ahlo has made friends he forbids Ahlo to see Kia and Purple anymore because they are outsiders;
  • The journey to a better life

    The journey to a better life

    when the other camp residents attack the shack of Ahlo’s family because Ahlo was caught stealing food and flowers from shrines, Taitok stops Toma from retailiating, saying that they are just low-land scum. This is an interesting comment that points to some ethnic differences between minority hill-tribe members and majority low-land Lao people that I don’t fully understand;

  • The family are driven out of the camp and Kia and Purple flee with them in a tractor full of unexploded bombs (of the 260 million bombs that rained down, some 80 million failed to explode). When Purple suggests that his home village is paradise Toma allows them to go there without asking for any details about the village. What they find is an abandoned village that ‘smells of death’ and contains unexploded cluster bombs. It’s not until Ahlo and Kia nearly blow themselves up with a cluster bomb that Toma decides to leave the village. As a parent I couldn’t understand why Toma and Taitok go to the abandoned village or allow the children to play without having first investigated what dangers awaited them.

Some of the aspects of the film that I liked the most are:

  1. seeing footage of remote Laos countryside and villages;
  2. seeing traditional village life, including some ceremonies surrounding death and sacrifices of goats and cows;
  3. seeing the way that Taitok dresses in traditional hill-tribe clothing and watching her pragmatically pluck coins from her traditional head-dress to pay for rice and transport;
  4. watching Ahlo’s determination to build a rocket based on the brief information that Purple gave him. I loved seeing his experimental process unfold;
  5. The beautiful friendship between Ahlo and Mali begins with this lovely scene of Ahlo catching flowers that Mali drops from the tree.

    The beautiful friendship between Ahlo and Mali begins with this lovely scene of Ahlo catching flowers that Mali drops from the tree.

    the beautiful friendship between Ahlo and Kia that begins when Kia throws flowers down from a tree and tells Ahlo to catch them and survives the expressions of inner turmoil that Ahlo verbally inflicts on Kia;

  6. watching Purple dance to James Brown when Ahlo steals electricity to power Purple’s tv; and
  7. seeing Toma finally decide to support Ahlo and launch the rocket in the competition is a heart-warming way to finish the film and symbolises the journey that Toma has taken to finally support Ahlo and reject his mother’s claims that he is cursed.

If you haven’t yet seen the film I suggest that you do! If you have seen it, what did you think?

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