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New Release Review - The Rocket

A young boy attempts to win money for his struggling family by entering a rocket building competition.

Directed by: Kim Mordaunt
Starring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Suthep Po-ngam




In a small village in rural Laos, a young woman gives birth to twins, the second of which is stillborn. As local tradition states, when twins are born, one of the infants carries a curse and so both must be killed. The young woman pleads with her superstitious elderly mother not to kill her new son, arguing that since the second child wasn't born alive, he technically isn't a twin. The old woman reluctantly agrees and keeps the child's status a secret until several years later when she blames the boy, Ahlo (Disamoe), for a fatal accident. With his entire village and family believing he will bring them nothing but bad luck, Ahlo enters a local rocket building competition in an attempt to win some much needed money for his family.
Following the path cleared by Welshman Gareth Evans (The Raid, Indonesia), Englishman Sean Ellis (Metro Manila, The Philippines) and Irish duo Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy (Mister John, Singapore), Australian Kim Mordaunt is the latest westerner to choose an Asian setting to tell a story with seemingly universal appeal. It could be argued that this is tantamount to cinematic colonialism and a form of cultural appropriation, but the aforementioned film-makers have been careful to steer clear of local politics, presenting us with films that could as easily, though a lot more expensively, have been set in London or Los Angeles. They've also, thankfully, avoided the patronizing, white liberal guilt infused tone of Slumdog Millionaire and Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film-making equivalents of what Jello Biafra might call a "Holiday in Cambodia".
Mordaunt's film is a different matter, however. She may have set her tale in the deadly mine-ridden fields of Laos, but she's not treading lightly. From the opening scene, we're confronted with the dark side of allowing tradition to thrive unchallenged; a barbaric practice of infanticide in the name of superstition. Even the most liberal, non-interventionist westerner will struggle not to "tut tut" at the predicament young Ahlo finds himself in through no fault of his own. And when the village outsider, a fan of western soul music shunned for siding with the US during the civil war, raises the ire of his neighbors by stealing their electricity so he can dance to his prized James Brown DVD, I know which side of the tradition vs progress debate my toes were tapping to.
Does Mordaunt have the right to comment on a culture that's alien to her, and would I have enjoyed The Rocket if I happened to be a native of Laos, are two questions I found myself pondering. I can't say whether her representation of the country is accurate or whether, like Englishman John Michael McDonagh's depictions of rural Ireland, it's based on stereotypes and poor subject familiarity. Either way, it's a film with a lot of charm, set against one of the planet's most visually splendid backdrops. 
Mordaunt's film will likely be compared to last year's Wadjda, but that's a comparison it doesn't earn. While the Saudi film subverted its "let's enter a contest" format, The Rocket is a lot more conventional in its use of the trope and as a result, the final act suffers from an overuse of sports movie cliches.
7/10


Eric Hillis

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