Veteran documentarian Kim Mordaunt’s first full-length feature, the Laos-set The Rocket, is by far the most exuberant film to ever open with a scene of attempted double infanticide. Mordaunt previously documented Laos life and its minefields in Bomb Harvest, and he exhibits a clear-eyed observation and understanding of the country’s cultural milieu that evades any sense of offensive exoticism. Part ethnographic narrative, part coming-of-age story, and part crowd-pleasing competition saga, The Rocket captures the feisty perseverance of a young boy who’s superstitiously believed to bring bad luck.
Born during a full moon in the northern mountains, Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) was delivered alongside a twin brother. Due to the cultural mysticism laid out by Ahlo’s traditional yet potty-mouthed grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), twins are to be killed upon birth since “one is blessed, and one carries a curse.” When Ahlo’s twin brother dies in childbirth, Ahlo’s mother (Alice Keohavong) convinces Taitok to keep Ahlo’s circumstance a secret and let him live. Ten years later, Ahlo is a firecracker of energy and resourcefulness, mending lanterns and selling fish in the market, yet his grandmother remains suspicious of the bad luck he may bring to the family.
Misfortune strikes when a company announces plans to build a second dam near the location of the family’s humble home, thereby displacing them to a government-allocated land. As they’re forced to relocate, a crass corporate video shown to the villagers falsely promises, with heavy commentary on industrialization, “a new house, good land, and a generous cash payout.” The family’s journey through the mountains to the Nan Dee Relocation Camp strikes a tragic note and the arid area they’re forced to live on is so barren it can’t even grow crops. Despite the string of disasters for which he’s held culpable by Taitok, Ahlo navigates adversity with a hopeful spirit, and he befriends two outsiders in the community, a young orphan girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her eccentric, booze-swilling ex-soldier uncle, Purple (Suthep Po-ngam).
Hoping to rebuild trust and prove his worth, Ahlo leads his family, as well as Kia and Purple, on a search for more fecund soil where they can plant mango seeds. Due to the historical national scars of war, landmines and dormant missiles are still scattered across the land like grave sites. After encountering a homemade rocket competition on their quest, Ahlo realizes the easiest way to be prosperous for his family is to build a rocket and enter to win the large cash prize at the exhilarating and highly perilous Rocket Festival.
Although the particulars of Laos’s historical conflicts are sometimes only obliquely confronted, the country’s torrid past of covered-up wars palpably echoes through The Rocket’s scarred yet majestic landscapes. Mordaunt isn’t always capable of balancing the multiple stories he’s juggling, as the narrative awkwardly morphs from a series of journeys to a high-stakes contest, but the film’s beating heart and spirited compassion remain consistent. Disamoe’s committed, can-do performance is authentically scrappy, capturing the resilience and genuine curiosity of youth, and the film successfully channels the dogged moxie of its child protagonist and the swirling excitement of the rocket festival. As the rocket competition reaches its climax, Mordaunt wisely focuses on the boy’s tenacity as opposed to the mere shock of a child being put in a dangerous situation. And when the smoke from the rocket explosion fades, the film’s resolute catharsis and strong sense of camaraderie become even clearer.