Heavy fog, endless rainforests, and the grand mountains of Northern Laos are the setting of director Kim Morduant’s debut feature The Rocket. This is a place where the grandeur of the landscape, and its attached memories, seem to determine its residents’ fate.
A young boy named Ahlo, played with great energy by Sitthipion Disamoe, lives in a rural village with his mother Mali, father Toma, and grandmother Taitok. After the local hydroelectric company floods their valley to build a secondary dam, Ahlo and his family are moved to a transit camp. He meets a young girl named Kia, and her eccentric uncle Purple – a bon vivant styled after James Brown. A series of disasters seems to confirm that Ahlo is ‘cursed’ and the cause of the family’s troubles.
With some moments of charm, including a chase sequence set to James Brown’s “Get On the Good Foot,” this is a film that should enjoy a solid popular reception. The film reaffirms that sometimes all you need to make a good film is a good script, strong actors, and great locations.
It’s unfortunate, however, that the driving narrative force is the clichéd hero’s journey, where a poor boy, Ahlo, beats insurmountable odds, thanks to a trusted friend, Kia, a mysterious mentor, Purple, and his own genius. This last sentence, with different examples, could of course have described Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, Spiderman, and a million others. The plot’s inevitability renders any genuine connections with Ahlo, or other characters, near impossible; and it removes the audience from the film.
In such a beautiful location, it’s disappointing that Morduant has decided to rely so heavily on the zoom lens. The claustrophobia, heightened by the very shallow focus, keeps us focused on Ahlo, but does so at the cost of his relationship to the environment around him. Some of the strongest shots in the film come when Morduant decides to open up the lens and the aperture. Here we get a sense of the vastness of the environment and the task that confronts Ahlo.
With funding from Screen Australia, a socially conscious bent, a heartwarming ending, and a series of international awards including the Tribeca Best Narrative Feature prize and the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, there are many who are hoping The Rocket will be ‘The Breakout Australian Film of 2013’. Well, this is hard to see happening. The Rocket’s obvious box ticking keeps the audience at arm’s length, while the film’s aspiration, to reaffirm our odds of survival, seems as plausible as Ahlo’s eventual brief triumph against those blank, ancient hills.