“World Cinema” At Its Worst: The Rocket

01/01/2014 4:00 AM |

The Rocket
Directed by Kim Mordaunt

From browsing its Rotten Tomatoes page, it seems impossible to review this movie without using the word “crowdpleaser.” An Australian/Laotian/Thai production, it rests uneasily between Oscarbait like Slumdog Millionaire and genuine Third World artistry like the work of Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik. Director Mordaunt is Australian, but his film is designed to show off the political realities of Laos. His background lies in documentaries—including one called Bomb Harvest about people who collect unexploded American bombs dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War—but the narrative of The Rocket succumbs to feel-good formulas.

Ten-year-old Ahlo (Sitthipon Disamoe) is blamed by his village for a string of bad luck, so his family is forced to move. He meets a young girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an alcoholic who idolizes James Brown. Ahlo’s family struggles to find a new home, and the child often takes over a paternal role despite his young age. The Rocket Festival, in which Laotians set off giant rockets, is approaching, and Ahlo sees a chance to redeem himself by winning the contest.

The Rocket tries to speak for a country almost never represented in cinema. It deals with some issues specific to Laos like the legacy of the Vietnam War (including the fact that the countryside is littered with explosives from the heavy American shelling) and the displacement of poor people by dams. The narrative has an appealing spontaneity, as though it were conceived by Ahlo and Kia themselves, until it finally takes focus in its final half hour. Cinematographer Andrew Commis has a great eye for the many shades of night—the film’s most attractive scenes are its nocturnal ones, tinged in beautiful tones of red and blue. But there’s also a strain of exoticism that conflicts with the film’s admitted pleasures and nobler goals. Thanks to Mordaunt’s reliance on middlebrow staples like cute kids, quirky adults and a narrative that allows them to transcended adversity with ease, The Rocket feels like a version of “world cinema” akin to the bland “world music” that emerged in the wake of Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Opens January 10