The Rocket is a life-affirming tale (gag) about a poor young boy who goes through a rite of passage and redeems himself (retch) in the disapproving eyes of his family (barf). But hold on - with this 2013 feature film, director-screenwriter Kim Mordaunt manages to take a story that normally would be fodder for countless Oprah-esque "feel good" flicks and transforms it into a touching, absorbing and true-to-life saga. Set in the impoverished jungles of Laos and using a cast of inexperienced, surprisingly great actors, this a beautifully done effort is well-served by Kino Lorber's handsome DVD edition.
The Rocket is made with a lot of heart and attention to detail, inhabited with vividly written characters who come across as real, universal types without delving into clichés. The story centers squarely on the jaded and prematurely wise ten year-old protagonist Ahlo, subtly played by child actor Sittiphon Disamoe. Ahlo is considered to be a curse by his superstitious grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), who carries a long-lasting resentment with Ahlo's mother (Alice Keohavong) for refusing to kill her baby when Alho's twin came out stillborn. Taitok also constantly henpecks her son and Ahlo's proud, farming father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), who is burdened with having to move the family after an Australian utility plans to build a dam that will flood their land. Arriving at the pitiful temporary shanty town the company set up for Ahlo's family and other poor villagers, Ahlo meets a spirited orphan girl named Kia (Loungnan Kaosainam), who is the sole caretaker for her drunken James Brown-impersonating uncle, Purple (Thep Phongam). With the odds stacked against him, the fearless Ahlo enlists the help of Purple (a former child soldier) to extract volatile powder from the rotting old American bombs littering the countryside for making a massive rocket. The handmade projectile is Ahlo's last-ditch effort to save his family and win at the community's local Rocket Festival, thus bringing riches and redemption to his beleaguered family.
The Rocket's stirring family drama is complemented with an evocative sense for what daily struggles face Laos' underprivileged - all the more surprising considering it was written and directed by an Australian. An actual Laos filmmaker would likely make this story more immediate and documentary-like, but Kim Mordaunt does well by accentuating the imperfect yet loving family, balancing drama and humor, giving the story a great narrative flow with some beautiful photography, and - most importantly - coaxing some terrific, naturalistic performances from his cast. Aside from the actor who played Purple (a veteran of several Thai films), the cast is made up of unknowns discovered via huge casting calls. Mordaunt then used method acting techniques to get the kind of comfortable, realistic and affecting performances that his script required. As a voyeuristic look at what the life of a typical lower class Laos family may be like, it works surprisingly well. The two kids, Sittiphon Disamoe and Loungnan Kaosainam, did an especially notable job, making their characters multi-layered and appealing without being overly cloying.
The Rocket's 2.35:1 image gets a lush treatment for Kino Lorber's DVD edition. Filmed in 35mm under naturally lit conditions, the disc's transfer preserves the life-like quality of the photography with good color and correct light-dark levels. The detailed imagery makes me wonder why Kino Lorber didn't release this on Blu Ray, but the DVD's nice visuals will suffice.
The disc's 5.1 Surround mix is also a pleasant experience, with pristine dialogue and subtle use of sound effects (although some of the music got mixed in too loudly). The Surround isn't used too prominently, though I noticed that they added some atmosphere during quieter scenes set in the jungle. Default optional English subtitles are provided, although no other subtitle or audio (besides the director's commentary) are included.
A feature-length Audio Commentary has director Kim Mordaunt discussing the minutiae of every scene with enthusiasm. Apparently the production was a harmonious experience, a fact further revealed in the disc's 19-1/2 minute Making-Of Featurette containing interviews with Mordaunt and the principal adult-age actors. An Image Gallery and Trailers for this and other Kino Lorber releases round out the extras.
A heartwarming come-from-behind story done in very "mainstream" style, The Rocket will entertain even those who aren't particularly into foreign-language films. This Australian/Thai production has director-screenwriter Kim Mordaunt deftly combining familial intimacy with a larger story of the oppressed poor in the Asian country of Laos. It's a gem. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.