Friday, August 23, 2013

Seeds of survival

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The Rocket - trailer

A boy who is believed to bring bad luck to everyone around him leads his family and two new friends through Laos to find a new home. After a calamity-filled journey through a land scarred by the legacy of war, to prove he's not bad luck he builds a giant rocket to enter the most exciting and dangerous competition of the year: the Rocket Festival.

One of the grimmer Australian documentaries of recent times, Kim Mordaunt's Bomb Harvest looked at the horrific aftermath of the US government's ''secret war'' on Laos in the 1960s and early '70s. Today, millions of live bomblets remain scattered across the country, killing or maiming hundreds each year.

It's not an obvious backdrop for feel-good entertainment, but that's what Mordaunt has given us in his fictional feature debut The Rocket, a co-production between Australia, Laos and Thailand he wrote and directed. The title refers to the Lao tradition of the village ''rocket festival'', where locals compete to see who can fire the most spectacular rocket into the sky. Such festivals have been held for centuries, but nowadays - for obvious reasons - might offer a special form of catharsis.

Before we get to the pyrotechnics, Mordaunt introduces us to Ahlo, a plucky 10-year-old from the mountains of northern Laos, played with an apt mix of stoicism and sensitivity by non-professional Sitthiphon Disamoe. A twin whose brother died at birth, Ahlo fears he may bring bad luck to his family, a superstition shared by his irascible grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi).

These fears are seemingly realised when the family learn that their village will be flooded by the construction of a hydro-electric dam; more shocking still, Ahlo's doting mother (Alice Keohavong) is killed in an accident during relocation. Ahlo and his remaining family members end up at a makeshift resettlement camp, where he finds new friends including Uncle Purple (Thep Pongam), a mysterious outcast who wears a grubby purple suit in emulation of his idol James Brown.

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Ahlo has already demonstrated his gift for tinkering with technology, but after he makes an ill-fated bid to steal electricity for the camp his family is forced to move once more. When they arrive at a village where a rocket festival is being held, he has his chance to restore the family's fortunes, though there's also the possibility his efforts will result in further disaster.

Despite heavy-handed stylistic touches, this is a remarkably deft piece of storytelling from a relatively inexperienced filmmaker. Some parts of the exciting climax were shot at an actual rocket festival, where Mordaunt's documentary background presumably came in handy.

Other striking images place the characters in a larger context, in more than a visual sense. When Ahlo is taken to visit a previously constructed dam, he's reduced to a tiny speck against the vast wall of concrete, which the camera has to tilt upwards to show in full. Later, he plunges into the lake created by the dam, swimming past ruins that symbolise how Lao culture has been submerged by change.

Uncle Purple is another kind of relic, and Mordaunt draws an implicit parallel between the bombing campaign a generation ago and the corporate greed that has since devastated the country in a different way. Yet it's not a straightforward lament: Ahlo belongs after his own fashion to the side of technological progress, while it's clear that not all of Taitok's traditional beliefs are worth retaining.

On a structural level, The Rocket is pure Hollywood: Mordaunt has thoroughly absorbed the screenwriting gospel of the ''hero's journey''. Ahlo is an archetypal underdog who must rely on personal initiative to succeed, while the supporting characters are generally defined as his helpers or foes.

This is also a male coming-of-age story, another familiar genre - though the sexual symbolism is unusually direct for a film seemingly aimed at all ages. Taitok nicknames the infant Ahlo ''Little Balls'', as if threatened by his potential future status as family head. The festival itself is a self-evident pissing contest - literally so when Ahlo learns that urine is the secret ingredient that will help his rocket take off. Meanwhile, he clings to the mangoes that were his mother's last gift, waiting for the opportunity to plant his seed.

The Rocket is currently showing.


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