Tuesday, February 25, 2014

'The Rocket' rides an underdog arc through Laos

Posted By on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Sitthiphon Disamoe plays Ahlo in The Rocket
  • Tom Greenwood
  • UNDERDOG: Sitthiphon Disamoe plays Ahlo in The Rocket

It's tough luck being born a twin. Or at least, that's one message viewers might take away from the visually stunning but overall disappointingly simplistic new film The Rocket. The film opens with the painful birth of the main character Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) in an isolated rural village in northern Laos. His twin brother is stillborn, and the mother-in-law tending the deliveries believes that Ahlo is cursed because not only is he a twin (a bad sign), but he's barely left the womb and already brought a tragedy. She urges the mother to kill the newborn, but instead they bury the dead twin under a tree, keeping his existence a secret from the father. Ahlo grows up under a sort of silent stigma in his grandmother's eyes. When the family is displaced from their traditional home due to the expansion of a nearby dam, they must take an arduous journey to higher ground. A terrible tragedy occurs along the way, killing Ahlo's mother, and the grandmother lets it be known he's a bad-luck twin. The child becomes obstinately determined to prove he's not a jinx by entering to win an annual home-built rocket contest at a festival in a nearby village.

The scenery in The Rocket is gorgeous and there are some nicely surreal scenes, particularly those related to the character Uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), a damaged but sympathetic James Brown-imitating alcoholic. The various settings - a makeshift provisional shanty town of the displaced, an ancient cave, a rocket festival in a small village - are original and intriguing. Especially nice is a scene in which Ahlo and his family visit a dam. Its stark mass is outrageously out of proportion to all the things we see elsewhere in the film. Incredibly, Ahlo climbs to the top and takes a swim where he sees fragments of ancient statues beneath the surface of the water. There's also some great incisiveness in the brief depiction of corporate goons making doublespeak to the disappointed, displaced villagers who are told, too late to refuse, that their new homes are still being built, and in the meantime, could they please just build temporary homes with the trash and sticks around the construction site?

The Rocket is the first feature film from Australian director Kim Mordaunt, who previously directed the documentary Bomb Harvest about Laotian children who gather bomb scrap metal. The new film isn't overtly political (perhaps it should have been), but rockets and bombs, detonated and undetonated, do keep appearing throughout the movie. Laos in the film is a country scarred by its past. The lasting traces of war, its tragedies, the craters left behind, and the old bombs half-buried everywhere are constant reminders of the violence of another era.

Unfortunately, the film relies too heavily on familiar feel-good underdog movie tropes. While the setting is wonderfully specific, earthy and intimate, the narrative arc seems broad and simple. Focusing so much on the story from the child's view ends up making things seem both too cutesy and too adult (the main character's relationship with his 9-year-old co-star Loungnam Kaosainam is tinged with adult romance). Disamoe, the lead child actor, is thrust into the center of every scene, and though he's talented, his performance is ultimately too earnest and one-noted, in effect revealing those same faults in the story itself. His is a tale of defiance against prejudicial stigma and tradition, and what are his odds? Everything ends with a triumph that's simultaneously improbable and predictable.

In spite of its problems, the film's strengths put me in mind of some of the classics of '90s New Chinese Cinema like Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju, though those filmmakers didn't shy away from nuanced endings. The Rocket is designed to go down more easily. But with its evocative scenery and its heart-warming story of personal triumph, The Rocket will undoubtedly be a crowd-pleaser for the art cinema set.

The Rocket. Three Stars. Directed by Kim Mordaunt. Starring Sitthiphon Disamoe and Loungnam Kaosainam. Opens at MIdtown Art Cinema on Feb. 28.

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