Though first-time feature Writer/Director Kim Mordaunt is an Australian documentary filmmaker and actor, The Rocket just might be the beginning of the Laotian film industry. While no one is holding their breath, the film, shot in Lao and French, it features a fine Laotian cast, led by a real-life street urchin-turned-actor, and paints a convincing, fascinating picture of the war-ravaged, landlocked Marxist country.
Surrounded by China, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand and invaded by the French, the Japanese and the North Vietnamese, Laos never stood a chance. To his credit, Mordaunt tries to integrate the depressing socio-economic and historic issues with a more universal feel-good narrative about the importance of the individual in a fatalistic, communist culture.
If the effort is a bit strained and, toward the end, sentimentalised, the authentic details, the hardships the characters endure and the cast’s energy will turn any cynicism to admiration.
‘One is blessed and one is cursed,’ says Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) referring to the twins just born to her frantic daughter-in-law (Alice Keohavong), Malia. When the second-born son dies, so must the surviving boy, named Ahlo, or he will risk bringing bad luck to the family. Malia protects Ahlo, but until he learns about a rocket-building competition ten hard years later, Taitok’s prophecy seems to be spot on.
First, the government dam building programme forces the family of ten-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon ‘Ki’ Disamoe) to abandon their home and land. Ahlo insists on bringing their boat along, and during the move, a devastating freak accident occurs because of it. The new homes promised by the government propaganda machine turn out to be a mosquito-infested refugee camp with tents and no toilets, water or electricity.
Resourceful and entrepreneurial beyond his years, and eager to buy his demoralised father a plot of land on which to grow his mother’s mangoes, Ahlo pins his hope on winning a rocket launching competition.
The more you know about Laos the more you will appreciate the details Mordaunt includes in Ahlo’s journey. The second oldest character, known as ‘Purple’ (the 64-year-old professional actor Thep Phongam) for the purple suit he has never changed, speaks French and loves James Brown.
Purple, a boy soldier and now an alcoholic, clearly suffers from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder, but in the story, is just considered a nuisance to be spurned. In the 20th century, Laos was been a Protectorate of the French and during the various Indochinese wars, he would have heard of James Brown.
Land mines, ghost villages and military debris figure in the plot as well. Independence in 1953 only brought a series of civil wars. When Laos was invaded by China-backed North Vietnam, the strategic Ho Chi Minh Trail became a major supply route running through the east of the country and was heavily bombed by the USA.
Sitthiphon ‘Ki’ Disamoe who plays Ahlo was abandoned by his impoverished parents and lived on the streets. A local woman named Bua, who was working as an extra in a film, was so impressed with the boy’s charisma and humour that brought him to the Rocket’s casting director (and now fosters him).
There is a chemistry between Ki, and his co-star, the adorable eight-year-old Loungnam Kaosainam, that is absent in many big-budget Hollywood romcoms.
Sumrit Warin, who plays Ahlo’s father, Toma, was a stunt man in Thai films when cast, while Alice Keohavong, who plays Mali was the child of Lao war migrants. Bunsri Yindi, who plays Taitok, worked two jobs, commuting between Vientiane (Laos’ capital) where she worked as a maid, and Thailand, where she ran a small restaurant.
At the age of 50 she was cast in a series of mobile phone commercials which led to a role in the popular feature film Ong Bak and to the Rocket. As in her personal life, so in the film, Taitok, who attaches her savings to a cap that she never removes, is a cross between a tough traditionalist and a survivor looking toward the future.