Review: Kim Mordaunt's Australian Oscar Submission 'The Rocket,' a Primitivist Parable with Anti-Corporate Message (TRAILER)

Festivals
by John Anderson
January 8, 2014 11:51 AM
8 Comments
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"The Rocket"
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.

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8 Comments

  • Anne Thompson | October 25, 2013 6:00 PMReply

    Kim Daunt is a man, but is listed among other things as an actress in IMDb.

  • Bill | October 29, 2013 12:59 AM

    Anne, do you mean Kim Mordaunt? No idea who Kim Daunt is...

  • GetAClue | October 25, 2013 5:00 PMReply

    When the author can't even get the sex of the director right it's hard to take anything else he says seriously...he's obviously just guessing most of the time...lol

  • Alex Blue | April 13, 2013 8:30 AMReply

    John,

    I saw this film in Berlin mate and it was amazing. Both kids and adults seemed to love it.
    I agree with Ana and Milos in that you need to check your facts before making such comments in a review.
    A truly beautiful film that shows a country I have never really seen on screen before. I was speechless. Good work to the crew and shame that your review is so misleading John.

    Regards,

    Alex

  • Milos | April 8, 2013 5:52 AMReply

    I have seen this beautiful and moving film, The Rocket, and the above article by author John Anderson is prompting me to correct some of his notions. The authors research may have let him down, but because these points are important and can create controversy, they cannot be left unanswered.

    First of all the director is male (not female).

    Secondly, in response to "The residue of what they call the American war seems too fresh", meaning the bombs, the author doesn't realise that Laos is still tittered with bombs (uncovered by people or floods everyday). Facts: Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Over the past four decades, only 500,000 of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions that failed to detonate have been cleared. From the end of the war in 1974 to 2008, more than 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents. There have been approximately 300 new casualties annually over the last decade! Sources: MAG International, Legacies of War, to name a few.

    Thirdly, in response to "killing twins, however, is something that (reportedly) hasn’t been done in decades", the author doesn't appreciate the fact that this has been still occurring, as stated in 2010 UN report on religion in Laos. In the 'The Rocket' this happens to effect the 10 year old child protagonist at his birth - 10 years ago when it would have been much more apparent.

    The film 'The Rocket' encompasses beautiful, honourable and unique sets of attributes that have touched me and I expect will touch audiences around the world. What is remarkable is that the heart of this story is actually transferable to any community in our world. It shows its stunning landscape and also touches tastefully on some controversial issues, which have been shaping the country in the past and the present.

  • Ana | April 8, 2013 1:15 AMReply

    I have seen THE ROCKET and I'm amazed that your article hardly states anything about the actual story arc of the young boy, yet you have been able to point out very wrong facts within the political/cultural/historical sphere of the film, completely missing the emotional impact of the film! This is at it's core a very heartfelt story with so much emotion from the boy's relationship to his family, his new friends and the loss of a dear one and how he overcomes the dark cloud that has been following him from birth. I have sat in an audience with many laughs and also many grown men in tears! Did you not feel any of this??

    (Sorry this comment section wasn't letting me post, so I'm submitting in parts)

  • Ana Jimenez | April 8, 2013 1:14 AMReply

    Dear John, I'm not sure what you mean exactly by "residue of what they call the American war seems too fresh", but if you are referring to the residue of the bombs in Laos, I highly recommend you to read up on this and even check out Kim's previous documentary (an Australian MALE director) BOMB HARVEST www[dot]bombharvest[dot]com, which might give you an idea about the "fresh residue" in Lao today - i.e. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in history as a result of US Secret War. Also check out MAG www[dot]maginternational[dot]org
    Oh and just a simple google on any of the facts of this would give you a clearer idea of millions of UXOs in Lao and a bit more about the film, the filmmakers, Lao cultural history...Just a bit afraid other people are going to read this and get the wrong idea...

  • Ana Jimenez | April 8, 2013 1:12 AMReply

    OK

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