The Rocket: A Laotian story

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

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The people and culture of Laos, a country heavily bombed by Americans during the Vietnam War, aren’t seen much in the English-speaking West.

The Rocket, filmed in Laos but funded through Australia, pulls up the curtain on Laotian countryside life, with surprising and rich rewards.

Directed by Kim Mordaunt, an Australia-based director making his first dramatic feature film, The Rocket tells the story of a boy named Ahlo, played by Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe, who is born a twin one evening in a small village. Local culture says that if twins are born, one must be disposed of, because one will inevitably turn evil and bring bad luck. Even Ahlo’s own father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), does not know that his son is a twin.

As Ahlo grows into a young boy, the family’s elderly matriarch, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), begins to wonder if they kept the wrong twin. With his winning smile, boundless energy, and endless capacity for chatter, Ahlo doesn’t seem evil. But bad luck follows him, leading to one mishap after another.

The family’s luck appears to run colder than ever when the authorities announce that a giant dam will flood their village surrounding territory. They make their way to a refugee area, but find that conditions aren’t exactly as advertised.

Ahlo meets two new friends, a little girl named Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her  Uncle Purple (Thep Phongham). Kia is a tomboy, almost as energetic and irrepressible as Ahlo himself. The two are soon inseparable.

Uncle Purple is the most confounding character in the entire film. He gets his name from the purple suit he wears throughout the film, and which he has apparently never removed since American soldiers awarded it to him for his help 40 years ago. He wears it because it reminds him of his favorite singer, James Brown. He breaks into James Brown impersonations at any opportunity.

Director Mordaunt brings together a widely disparate cast to tell his story. Thep Phongham has more than 35 years of experience in action and comedy roles.

But Loungnam Kaosainam’s drama experience was limited to small parts in local stage productions. And Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe, the heart of the film, had never acted before, although his stepmother had done some work as a movie extra.

Disamoe spent many years on the street. His endlessly entertaining patter in the film, always bouncing back from adversity with humor, is quite similar to how he actually struggled to survive. He and Kaosainam run through the village markets, selling what they have to sell, and relying on a little more than their own charm to earn handouts.

The action leads up to a huge rocket competition, which fills the skies with flame and smoke. It reminds the viewer that many of these competitive rockets get their power from the many unexploded bombs lying all over Laos. The locals re-use the components at their own peril.

The movie celebrates the children’s own mystical selves, their ability to take pleasure and deep communion from everyday things. They use their own imaginations to fill in for their lack of toys and other material possessions. It’s a triumph of human zest and human spirit. (end)

The Rocket opens Friday, Feb. 21, at Seven Gables Theatre, located at 911 N.E. 50th St. in Seattle. For prices and show times, call 206-781-5755, or visit http://www.landmarktheaters.com/market/Seattle/SevenGablesTheatre.htm.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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Photos on flickr