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MIFF Film Review: The Rocket

Wednesday 7 August 2013

MIFF Film Review: The Rocket

The best way to describe The Rocket is: ‘cinematic gem’. All the elements of the film come together perfectly and beautifully, time is lost and you are swept up, diving right in as you are immersed by the story without the little bumps that dispel your suspension of belief.

The Rocket is the debut feature for Australian Kim Mordaunt, which won Best Feature, Best Actor and the Audience Award at Tribeca International Film Festival; Best First Feature, Crystal Bear and Amnesty International Film Prize at the Berlin Film Festival; and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Sydney Film Festival. 

This coming-of-age drama tinged with comedy, is set in a remote northern Laos village in the present day, and weaves a beautiful narrative between the notions of tradition and progress. The story follows 10-year-old Ahlo, who’s deemed cursed by his family and community. He is held responsible for every unfortunate event they encounter, from the development of a new dam that destroys their village in Laos to the perils faced when relocating the family. As an outcast of his community and distrusted by his family, Ahlo must prove to everyone and himself that he is not cursed. With the help of James Brown impersonating Uncle Purple and friend Kia, he sets his sights on winning the annual rocket festival to prove everyone wrong.

The first aspect of this film that is so striking is the stunning cinematography that captures the landscape and life of Laos, enhancing the script and characters. From tumbling rainforest and towering fronds to the chilling underwater sequence of the flooded city, the settings come alive through the camera. Each shot was clearly well thought out to reflect and effectively tell the story. This is especially noticeable when the towering dam is seen for the first time, as well as the crafted shots that make up most of Kia before we see her face when she first meets Ahlo. The camera in this film extracts beautifully the emotion from the actors in subtle and well-timed close-ups.

There is a true authenticity to this film, which stems from Mordaunt’s experiences filming Bomb Harvest, ensuring nothing feels out of place or for plot’s sake.

This film is flawless and part of the credit must go towards the original characters and the masterful way the actors bring those characters to life with great sincerity. One scene where this is apparent is a stolen moment between the two children Ahlo and Kia, as she gently reassures him of their resilient friendship. In the role of Kia, actress Loungnam Kaosainam maintains the beautiful but pinched expression of a young, intelligent, sensitive, yet strong girl. She shifts between being innocent and worldly, sweet and (to Ahlo) flirtatious, whilst carrying the burden of the emotional pain from her past. Sitthiphon Disamoe wonderfully captures the truthfulness and spirit of Ahlo, whilst maintaining boyish attitudes and like Kia, expresses a past pain and maturity. The characters of Ahlo’s father, mother and grandmother (Toma, Mali and Taitok) are wonderfully crafted and unique, and brought to life exquisitely by the actors.

The script and dialogue is full of sparkling moments of honesty, and tenderly pitches the continuing harsh reality of post-war Laos to modern audiences through the plot and characters. Some of the lines are magical, perfectly capturing the moment with subtle intricacy. One defining scene that struck a chord and felt incredibly genuine was an exchange between Ahlo, his mother and grandmother in between the dyed indigo material hanging from a line, reflecting Hmong and Laos tradition.

The children live in the enchanted Jungle Book-esque slice of paradise, free to range and explore. It’s these mirrored themes from the classic tale of progress and infrastructure vs. tradition and the wilderness that highlight the irony of western culture proving development doesn’t promote growth and prosperity. This charming world that the children both live in and create for themselves is starkly contrasted with the fragments of appalling reality of present day Laos, as the children dodge sleeping tigers (bombs), landmines and grenades.

The feeling you are left with is that for the cast and crew, this was a beautiful, harmonious, enjoyable film to make. There seemed to be an understanding and joy between those that collaborated on the film and the result is an instant, strong connection and investment in the characters, story and whole film right from the beginning.

The Rocket is one of the best films of the festival and if you watch nothing else during the last week, see this film!

- Chelsea Denny