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Film review: THE ROCKET, from Built For Speed

The Rocket, an Australian production set in Laos is a charming, poignant sometimes weird humanist drama about family breakdown, western corporate greed, the enduring impact of the Vietnam War on Laos and the interpersonal bonds that carry people through awful times.

The film is told largely from the perspective of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) a young Laotian boy burdened with the belief that, due to the tragic circumstances surrounding his birth, he is cursed and bad luck for everyone around him. When a hydro-electricity company acquires his village and intends to flood the area for a dam, he and his family are forced to relocate to what turns out to be a squalid housing camp.  After inadvertently causing mayhem, Ahlo, his father and grandmother and a little girl and her strange uncle with whom they have bonded, are forced to flee the camp.  While trekking through sweaty jungles and rugged landscapes still littered with unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War, Ahlo and his family discover a village which is hosting a dangerous-looking rocket launching competition.   Almost destitute, Ahlo thinks that if he can win this competition he can earn enough money for his family to settle down.

The Rocket at first looks as if it will simply be a low-key naturalistic and po-faced film about downtrodden people.  Quickly, though, it transforms into and odd but entrancing mix of family drama, coming of age tale and redemption story.  While often confrontingly realistic, it’s also infused with surreal elements such as a purple-suited man obsessed with James Brown, an old lady who constructs bongs for living, bizarre rituals involving severed animal heads and weirdly unnerving sights like elephants piling enormous unexploded bombs onto trucks.

The film largely rests on the performance of young Sitthiphon Disamoe who is excellent as a child suddenly forced to confront crushing personal doubt, unfairly imposed guilt and adult responsibilities.  Sittiphon was apparently a street kid who had never acted before and initially found it difficult to adjust to the world of movie making but he seems utterly natural here.  His playful friendship with the surprisingly wise little girl Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) adds a wonderful layer of innocent charm to an often unsettling film.

Sumrit Warin also delivers a moving performance as Ahlo’s seemingly broken and emasculated father Toma who is humbled into silence for much of the film.  The moments of dignity he is afforded are very powerful although the rocket launching competition is a slightly obvious symbol of his personal empowerment and revived masculinity; in fact there’s quite a fixation on phallic imagery in this film.  Also, Hitchcock probably would have grinned at Toma’s ball-breaking Mother (Bunsri Yindi) whose uninhibited verbal tirades are an absolute riot.

For all its idiosyncratic cultural aspects and strange comic diversions, what stands out in The Rocket is powerful and touching human story.

Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Kim Morduant

Release date: 29th Aug 2013.

Running time: 100 mins.

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