Ahlo is bad luck.
Born in tribal hut in a region of Laos seemingly untouched by modernity, he is half of a set of twins. When his sibling is stillborn, his grandmother Mali insists he be killed as well. Twins, so tradition holds, either bring a blessing or a curse, and since the other infant is dead it stands to reason that little Ahlo must be bad news. The mother stands up for herself and nurtures the boy for ten years or so, until trouble indeed finds its way to their village. A dam is being built (by an Australian company) and their area will be flooded. There are promises of cash and dream houses with running water and uninterrupted electricity. Mali is convinced, of course, it is Ahlo's fault and things only get worse when a freak accident that takes a page from Herzog's “Fitzcarraldo” kills Ahlo's mother.
The group (including Ahlo's emotionally distant, but not wholly uncaring father) finds its way to their new home, which resembles more of an internment camp than suburban paradise. “The toilets are coming,” a woman assures them, as the one white guy in the movie stands behind her awkwardly wearing a baseball hat adorned with Laotian writing.
Ahlo soon catches the eye of a strange man called Uncle Purple, a drunk obsessed with James Brown. (When he first came on the screen my first thought was, in fact, woah, that guy looks like an Asian James Brown!) In Uncle Purple's care is the adorable moppet Kia, with whom Ahlo forms an innocent relationship.
Indeed, Ahlo and Kia's ability to find time to play amidst the wretched poverty (so many flies and mosquitoes) is, in many ways, the main triumph of the film.
The two families merge and leave the camp once Ahlo accidentally sets a sacred shrine on fire. They escape in the back of a truck run by amputees who salvage undetonated explosives. (An elephant carrying a bomb in its trunk is one of the stranger images I've seen on film this year.) The group begin a long quest looking for a home, first checking out Uncle Purple's old village and then stumbling upon a community that seems to have its act together, but is unwelcoming of broke newcomers.
As it happens, this village is about to hold its annual “Rocket Festival,” where the person who buildings the best rocket gets a big wad of cash. While this may seem like a preposterous happy ending device on the order of “Silver Linings Playbook,” it at least has the benefit of being strange and specific, as opposed to a dance contest.
The rockets are meant to “poke the Gods in the arse” and make them piss rain, and the third act has young Ahlo running around looking for natural elements like Captain Kirk when he fought the Gorn. The big finish, which may violate more safety codes than any other community gathering anywhere in the world, is a tad corny, but given the extraordinary tone of the film it basically works with minimal schmaltz. In short, if you aren't moved by the “The Rocket,” your heart is, indeed, as defective as a projectile that doesn't launch.
“The Rocket” isn't quite the 90s Miramax experience the synopsis may suggest. It makes tremendous use of the natural landscape and there are more than a few scenes where director Kim Mordaunt is willing to take a step back from plot mechanics and let the story unspool visually. There will be some who will raise an eyebrow at Uncle Purple's soul music moments, but, much like the movie's emotional “big finish,” Mordaunt doesn't lean on the cultural disconnect too much. In a less confident director's hands the flourish might be so in-your-face as to get annoying.
It's hard to tell someone “you really need to go out and see this exploration of third world poverty” but “The Rocket,” while certainly accomplished in making you feel guilty, is just a well told yarn. The kid performances are impressive and the subtext of a region still shaking off the effects of a long-ended war gives seed to some much needed discussion.
SCORE: 8.5 / 10