We’ve barely had time to digest this year’s Academy Awards, but surely it’s not too soon to start prognosticating about next year’s nominees. By peering into the deepest recesses of my crystal ball, I see that The Rocket – an Australian-Laotian co-production, the first Laotian film I’ve ever seen, and one of only 66 films listed by IMDb to be at least partly of Laotian origin — will feature prominently in 2014’s Best Foreign Language Film competition.
Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 7, The Rocket is the at times surreal, at other times mytho-poetic tale of young Ahlo’s against-all-odds effort to shrug off the effects of the curse placed upon him by (of all people) his grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi). Little Ahlo is the surviving sibling of a stillborn twin – and his tribe considers twins very bad news indeed.
Bravely resisting the strictures of tradition, first-time mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) somehow convinces Taitok not to smother her surviving newborn. Instead, she and grandma bury the dead twin under cover of darkness in a secret location, risking bringing bad luck and misfortune to both the immediate family and the entire village.
Time passes, and 10-year old Ahlo’s (Sitthiphon Disamoe) curse manifests itself in the form of a new dam, the construction of which will compel the locals to vacate the premises and embark on a long march to a shiny new Relocation Village. Here, government officials assure them, a life of comfort, ease, and running water awaits.
Instead, they find themselves living in a tent city distinctly short of all mod cons while the new village – consisting, it seems, of little more than a propaganda billboard – remains under construction. Unconvinced that things will soon change for the better, Ahlo, his family, and new friends Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), a Vietnam War vet with a James Brown fixation, embark upon an episodic adventure that will take them to the region’s annual rocket festival, where large explosions and final act redemption await.
Written and directed by Aussie newcomer Kim Mordaunt, The Rocket is hugely enjoyable and (thanks largely to Andrew Commis’ stunning location cinematography) an object of considerable beauty. The theme of things submerged and buried – including Laotian history and tradition – runs through Mordaunt’s screenplay, which also incorporates the ongoing legacy of the Vietnam War, the incompetence and venality of Laos’ government, and the seemingly unavoidable excesses of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ into the story.
Most notably, The Rocket features – and I don’t believe I’m exaggerating here – one of the best sequences I’ve ever seen in any film. A scene sound-tracked by James Brown’s ‘Get on the Good Foot‘ is pure cinema magic, the rhythms of editor Nick Meyer’s cutting brilliantly matching those of the Godfather of Soul’s funk masterpiece.
It’s a four-minute tour de force which, I hope, will help propel The Rocket into next year’s Oscar shortlist – indeed, I’m pleased to report that its already been submitted as Australia’s Foreign Language Oscar entry for 2014. Apparently, Australian English isn’t considered a foreign language by the Academy, so Laotian will have to do.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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