The Laotian environment as portrayed in writer/director Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is both one of immense natural beauty and one of environmental degradation, danger and death. It is a country where a large portion of its population live traditionally in hut villages, but also a country suffering from substantial environmental problems due to commercial exploitation of the forests and water catchments. Laos has also had the most bombs dropped on it per capita than any other country in the world. The Rocket portrays Laos as a country of complex contradictions, all of which form a rich backdrop to the central story of a boy and his family trying to find a new home.
The Rocket continually captures the contradictions of Laos, but juxtaposing images of death with images of life. The tone is overall celebratory and hopeful as despite what gets thrown at the characters, and they do go through significant hardship, life prevails. The first major juxtaposing occurs at the beginning of the film depicting the birth of lead character Ahlo. The birth scene is dark, ominous and full of conflict between Ahlo’s mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) and his paternal grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) who believes Ahlo is a cursed baby. Death is present in this scene as Ahlo’s twin brother is stillborn and Taitok tries to convince Mali to kill Ahlo. The film then cuts to the present day to reveal Ahlo as a boy (Sitthiphon Disamoe) bursting with life and energy, laughing in delight as he plays on a swing.
Ahlo is a character who defies hardship through the way he finds beauty and potential in the world, and the film frequently shows us his perspective to demonstrate this. When Ahlo and his father Toma (Sumrit Warin) attend a briefing about a new dam that will flood their village, Ahlo leaves his father to hear the bad news to instead swim in an existing dam. The dam is shot to physically dominate the frame, reinforcing the almost violent way it was imposed onto the land. The audible hum of the machinery is also imposing. However, when Ahlo climbs the dam to dive in and swim, the moment is one of tranquillity as he glides through the water and looks down on the sunken statues that would have belonged to previously displaced people. The swimming sequence is intercut with shots of Toma watching the cynical corporate video explaining that he has to relocate. The crosscutting suggests that Ahlo’s spirit still prevails against the all-powerful multinationals who are casually threatening to destroy his way of life.
Many of the juxtapositions are also darkly ironic. Most pronounced are the shots of the unexploded bombs lying dormant in the vegetation. Bomb violence is never explicitly depicted, but its threat to human life is suggested through the one-armed man who drives the bomb collection cart and a shot of a drying jacket with holes blasted through it after being in range of an exploding cluster bomb that Ahlo and his friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) accidentally play with. And yet Laos is a country where a day of celebration is based on building and firing rockets in the sky to defiantly shake up the sky gods.
Building the rocket is an example of combining technology and traditions to create a symbol of hope. It is a fitting metaphor for the future of Laos as led by Ahlo’s generation. By comparison the character that represents the old era is the mysterious character known only as Purple (Thep Phongam). He is cynical about traditions and customs, yet also bitter and angry at past foreign interference and contemporary inequality. He refuses to elaborate on his connection to the American army during the 1960s and 1970s when Laos was involved in the Vietnam War, and yet he adores James Brown, a distinctive part of American culture. Cunning, resourceful, friendly and funny, he is also an alcoholic, untrustworthy and hiding a dark past. Like so many aspects of The Rocket, Purple is a mix of ironic contradictions.
The film’s irony is also expressed in the way it both challenges and potentially reinforces the superstitious belief that Ahlo causes bad luck. On a rational level it is cruel and foolish to hold a young boy accountable for so much misfortune, but the way The Rocket creates links between Ahlo’s actions and specific outcomes suggests that such a belief has some tangible grounding. In one scene, after naively taking food from a shrine, Ahlo attempts to return it and triggers a new chain of events that causes problems for his family. The further irony is that the problems are not caused by taking the food, but by trying to return it, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007) where the protagonist is not punished for stealing drug money, but for when he attempts to act morally by bringing water to a dying man.
Throughout The Rocket Ahlo carries the burden of having people believe he is the cause of all misfortune that befalls his family. The accusations laid against Ahlo are unbearably harsh and while the physical journey to find a new home is the film’s narrative thrust, it is Ahlo’s emotional journey to cast off any doubt that he is the cause of bad luck that gives the film its heart. This emotional journey also defines the warm, good humoured and compassionate tone of the film. While the film contains its insightful ironic contrasts and confronting subject matter, it never succumbs to being an arduous or distancing viewing experience. Instead, it is an extremely rewarding and entertaining film made all the stronger for the integrity and cultural details that underpin it.