There’s some seductively primeval scenery decorating Aussie director Kim Mordaunt’s “The Rocket,” which is Australia's Oscar entry, if only because its setting -- Laos -- has so seldom appeared on western screens. The film opens in New York City on January 10 and in Los Angeles on January 17 at the Nuart Theatre.
Stirring landscapes, however -- and the occasional flash of cinematographic virtuosity from DP Andrew Commis -- will only get you so far, something Mordaunt obviously knows, as he goes about creating a primitivist parable with an anti-corporate message replete with plucky preteens, a James Brown impersonator, ripely symbolic mangoes, unexploded landmines and a tone that roams from Italian post-war neo-realism (think an Asian “Stromboli”) to the magical conjuring of that elusive Vietnamese genius, Tranh Anh Hung.
However: Mordaunt makes a more than adept fiction debut with a story that picks scabs off a number of sore subjects, the most glaring of which is western oppression, which manifests itself in the forced relocation of a village -- including the family of young Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) -- so some U.S./Aussie cabal can build another massive dam project.
Promised new housing, services and money, the family gets nothing, and instead find themselves wandering across a country littered with unfired American bombs and mines, carrying the mangoes they hope will produce trees and fruit and encounter a number of situations that all contribute to the education of Ahlo -- including a rocket competition that is so spectacularly under-produced it attains a sublime, smoke-filled realism that gives “The Rocket” a kinetic charge.
What’s a little strange about “The Rocket” is trying to determine when it’s set. The residue of what they call the American war seems too fresh for the film to be placed in the present, exactly. And there are other curiosities, too: Because he was born a twin, Ahlo’s ferocious grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) wanted him killed at birth – fear of twins being a common superstition among the Akha people of northern Laos, which these folks apparently are. Actually killing twins, however, is something that (reportedly) hasn’t been done in decades, so it may be that Mordaunt has produced a period piece. (If there was was an explanatory title somewhere, we definitely missed it.)
But while it’s unclear when exactly the film takes place, that’s OK -- the sense is, and is supposed to be, of a people largely rooted in traditions and mores that don’t change, with a few notable exceptions – Uncle Purple, for example, an ex-Laotian soldier with a James Brown obsession and a motherless niece named Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), who becomes fast friends with Ahlo. Together with his feckless father (Sumrit Warin) and his homicidal granny, they become an ad-hoc family.
For all its considerable virtues, there’s a lot of traveling in “The Rocket,” and not a lot of places to go. In addition to the pronounced uncertainty of tone, the film relies on situations that enable the characters to engage in various antics, including the kind of behavior that defines character, without those characters having any arc to follow, or the story actually being much of a story.
Ultimately, the movie is heading to the rocket competition and, with any luck, Ahlo’s validation as a good-luck guy, rocketeer and rainmaker for the family’s new drought-stricken village. But that particular line is very abbreviated, and doesn’t really require the blast-off, vapor trail and various re-entries that “The Rocket” enjoys. That said, Ahlo’s rocket-making itself makes for some terrific moments, the characters are all memorable, and the ending is the type that brings a tear to the more vulnerable eye, something which one can always blame on the smoke.