Disturbing memento mori are entirely commonplace in the southeast Asian nation of Laos. In The Rocket, the first non-documentary film from Australian director Kim Mordaunt, unexploded ordnance is nestled seemingly beneath every rock and within every patch of tall grass, waiting for an unsuspecting citizen, usually a child, to happen upon it. The bombs are, of course, left over from the extensive American campaigns of the Vietnam War, which did no small part in giving Laos the grim title of the most-bombed nation in human history. In present-day Laos, though, the threat of falling cluster bombs has been superseded by the subtler but still ever-encroaching hand of modernity.
The film follows Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a 10-year-old boy growing up in a lush valley with his mother (Alice Keohavong), father (Sumrit Warin), and curmudgeonly grandmother (Bunsri Yindi). Barring some light inter-generational bickering, the family lives peacefully until it is uprooted by the construction of a hydroelectric dam that will ultimately flood their home. The family becomes itinerant, bouncing from slum villages to abandoned military outposts, falling in with a young girl (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her alcoholic, James Brown-obsessed uncle (Thep Phongam). The group faces increasingly narrowing options and ever-deepening peril, until the possibility of salvation presents itself in the form of a traditional Laotian rocket-launching competition. Ahlo hopes to build a rocket that can fly high enough to win the contest and secure a considerable cash prize for his ragged cohort.
That Ahlo should seize upon a centuries-old contest to rescue himself from oblivion could be seen as a repudiation of the iron fist of progress and modernity. But Ahlo pursues his high-flying ambitions by largely by rejecting a past steeped in folklore and superstition. When his grandmother denounces Ahlo as an evil omen for being half of a pair of twins (the other one stillborn), it seems to not affect him much after he gets over the initial shock. Similarly, when every adult within hearing range him tells him to avoid the whiff of danger at all costs, he shrugs these warnings off while brazenly dissecting dud bombs and setting off violent neighborhood disputes.
Ahlo is making, in effect, a clean break with both the recent and distant histories of his nation. Still embracing Laotian culture, he rejects the notion that the ghosts of war must be ever-present, or that ancient traditions must foreordain his fate or the fate of his loved ones. Even at ten years old, Ahlo seems to possess an innate understanding that in order to function in his part of the world at this point in history, all of that old baggage will have to be exorcised and cut loose.
The Rocket has flaws: there are some plot holes and oddly unresolved characters, and the Ahlo-as-evil-omen plot line is wrapped up a little too neatly. But those can be forgiven, especially since Mordaunt is telling a tale — presenting a hypothesis — that deserves wide attention. When a nation’s history is clouded by war and death, and its customs shattered by the forces of modernity and industry, where do its people turn? The Rocket seems to say that, in the absence of tradition and national identity, the forces of ingenuity, persistence, and family (whatever form it may take) will be essential in order to persevere.