by Ken Korman
Australia’s official submission to this year’s Oscars, The Rocket balances social realism with the kind of feel-good storytelling that used to make Hollywood proud. Shot on location in Laos and featuring Laotian actors, Aussie director Kim Mordaunt’s film arrives at a landscape ravaged by both the Vietnam War and the current needs of industry. Pre-teenager Ahlo and his extended family must leave their soon-to-be-flooded village thanks to the construction of a massive electricity-producing dam. Ahlo is further burdened by superstition that says he’s cursed by the unfortunate circumstances of his birth. A road movie evolves as the family searches for an acceptable place to live, all while avoiding the live explosives that remain from Laos’ time as the most heavily bombed country in history. The family is joined by displaced orphan Kia and her uncle Purple, a James Brown fan and lookalike who gets his name from the loud suit he wears each day while threatening to burst into soul-drenched song and dance.
The Rocket generates a fable-like quality as the plot hurtles toward possible redemption for Ahlo in the form of a Rocket Festival, a real-life Laotian phenomenon in which participants return metaphorical fire to the heavens with homemade rockets in a cash-prize competition. (Mordaunt discovered Rocket Festivals, and the people of Laos, while filming a documentary called Bomb Harvest, and he returned to a real festival to shoot The Rocket’s finale.) The previously unknown child actors do a remarkable job of pulling us into the story. Their characters (and others) may be familiar, and there’s something deeply traditional about the entire film — even with its exotic locale and politically charged context. But who says foreign films can’t be crowd-pleasers too?
The Rocket will be presented by the New Orleans Film Society in three screenings at Chalmette Movies this Sunday (2:30 p.m.), Monday, and Tuesday nights (7:30 p.m.), February 9-11. More info here.