Small stories of redemption in Laos

The Rocket (M). Director: Kim Mordaunt. Starring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Phongam, Sumrit Warin, Bunsri Yindi. 92 minutes

Scene from 'The Rocket'. Young Lao boy and girl, old lady and man in purple suit riding in a motorcycle side car through picturesque Laos mountainsA psychologically scarred war veteran struts about dressed as James Brown. An annual festival sees men celebrate explosives, in a country riddled with unspent American bombs. The Rocket, an Australian production set in Laos, finds plenty of humour within a decidedly bleak historical context.

'That one of the main reasons we wanted to make the film,' says writer and director Kim Mordaunt. 'You've got a country that's been bombed [during the American war with Vietnam] more than anywhere on the planet, yet there's a beautiful spirit in the people to move forward and find positivity.'

As far as Kim and his wife, producer Sylvia Wilczynski were concerned, The Rocket had to be funny and highly entertaining, not only to pay tribute to this spirit, but also to open it up to as many potential viewers as possible. 'We hoped it might draw a wide audience into a place that they might not normally go,' says Sylvia.

At the heart of The Rocket, then, is a simple quest narrative that explores the universal themes of growing up and dealing with loss. The hero is ten-year-old Ahlo (Disamoe), who, following a series of misfortunes that devestate his family — including the loss of their home to an industrial dam project, and the untimely death of a close family member — sets out to prove that he is not a bad luck charm 

He soon falls in with streetwise nine-year-old Kia (Kaosainam) and her uncle Purple (Phongam) — the aforementioned eccentric veteran — who become his solace from his emotionally distant father (Warin) and sternly matriarchal and superstitious grandmother (Yindi). His quest eventually leads him to the Rocket Festival, where he has the opportunity not just to compete for a cash prize, but also to attain a kind of symbolic redemption.

'The festival started as an ancient animist fertility festival that happens at the end of dry season,' says Wilczynski. 'It later got mixed with Buddhism ... but since the war, it's got this whole other layer, of shooting back to the sky. There are a lot of ex-military people who are still very damaged but also have good knowledge of explosives!'

The festival evokes a sense both of rejecting the historic aggression that Laos suffered during the war — American bombs caused some 700,000 civilian casualties between 1964 and 1973 — and also of thumbing their noses at the presence of millions of unexploded bombs that still litter the countryside. 'Sleeping tigers', Purple dubs them, and several episodes in The Rocket revolve around such deadly, ubiquitous debris.

Mordaunt and Wilczynski were living in Hanoi and holidaying in Laos when they first became aware of this issue. 'We met some bomb disposal specialists and they opened our eyes,' says Wilczynski. 'We were ashamed that as Australians we didn't know what our American allies had done.' They ended up making a documentary, Bomb Harvest, which screened on the ABC in Australia and to wide acclaim at film festivals around the world.

One of the other threads of Bomb Harvest concerned young children who collect bombs to sell the scrap metal. The Rocket in turn was inspired by the time they had spent with those children. 'All the situations in The Rocket are based on things we witnessed,' says Mordaunt. 'When we were making Bomb Harvest we saw a lot of villages that had been relocated to make way for industry.' That context, then, became the starting point for Ahlo's story.

'And with that we saw a lot of loss,' Mordaunt continues. 'So we knew this would be a story that embraces loss. Sylvia and I both lost parents at a young age, so it's something we can feel very strongly; what happens to a child when they lose someone, and the dysfunctional mentors they end up falling in with. That's the core of the story … then it was about building a context on that, of the country, its history, where it was going, and its mysticism.' The result is a story that is epic (despite the film's concise running time), engaging and universal.

Much of the film's charm comes from its two young leads. Disamoe is a tough and resourceful former street kid, and Kaosainam is a gifted drama student who set the standard on set with her emotional honesty. 'Sitthiphon has an amazing survival instinct and sense of self,' says Wilczynski. With Kaosainam, 'everything she feels is right on her face. She's so natural ... If she's picking her nose when the camera is on, she'll just pick her nose.' Mordaunt adds that on the other hand, 'when she's vulnerable, there's a real vulnerability. You can't see the cogs turning.'

The filmmakers say the young actors initially hated each other, but came to love each other by the end of the shoot. The development of this bond is mirrored on screen, where the characters' natural playfulness (an exuberant sprint through a marketplace marked by moments of impromptu silliness) evolves through shared experience into something more poignant. It crystallises in a single moment when Kia looks 'right into Ahlo's soul', says Mordaunt, to disperse his crippling self-doubt. 'That to me is the soul of the film,' he says. 'And they found that together.'

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Laos, Vietnam War, Bomb Harvest, Kim Mordaunt, Sylvia Wilczynski, James Brown



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