I recently introduced The Rocket at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London. The cinema has asked me to post my comments on the film online. While I was working from notes, and thus cannot reproduce fully what I said, this blog post nonetheless can convey some of my thoughts on the film.
Set in Laos, The Rocket tells the story of Ahlo (Sittiphon Dissamoe), one of a pair of twins, but whose brother dies during childbirth. Ahlo is loved by his mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), but twins are considered to be omens of bad luck according to local superstition. And since Ahlo’s brother died in childbirth, Ahlo must be a bringer of bad luck – or at least this is what his grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindee), believes.
That Ahlo brings bad luck to the family is affirmed when the family is forced to migrate as a result of a dam being constructed in the region where they live. They are taken to a refugee camp, where their lives are affected by poverty. At the camp, Ahlo befriends fellow outsiders Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her father Purple (Thep Phongam), who is obsessed with James Brown.
The family flees the camp, but endures more loss – affirming Ahlo’s status as the purveyor of bad luck, something that even Ahlo’s father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), begins to believe.
And so, in order to redeem himself, Ahlo decides to enter a rocket competition. This is a festival in which people build their own rockets and then fire them at the sky. Those rockets that fly highest, explode biggest and, if possible, which bring much-needed rain, will win a cash prize.
Ahlo enters, re-bonds with his father, and sets off a rocket that soars high, explodes mightily and forces the heavens to open. After tragedy, then, the film has a happy ending.
The Rocket is directed by Kim Mordaunt, a British-Australian who has lived extensively in Asia, and who has also taught filmmaking there.
Mordaunt has historically plied his trade most prominently as a documentary maker. Indeed, his earlier film, Bomb Harvest (Australia, 2007), has various similarities with The Rocket. Although the central character of that film is an Australian bomb disposal specialist, it nonetheless features Lao children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. This film no doubt informed The Rocket, since we also see Lao children playing around and working with unexploded bombs, including Ahlo.
The Rocket is Mordaunt’s first fiction feature, and it has won awards at the Berlin (Crystal Bear, Best First Feature, Amnesty International Film Prize), at the Sydney (Audience Award), and at the Tribeca (Best Film, Best Actor, Audience Award) Film Festivals.
Nonetheless, Mordaunt’s documentary sensibility remains in the film. This is made clear in the use of locations in the film (especially the stunning mountain scenery), but also, particularly, through the final rocket festival that is the film’s culminating point. Here, Mordaunt fuses documentary footage shot from an earlier, real rocket festival with footage shot at a recreation of that festival – and featuring his actors.
Furthermore, The Rocket has something of an ethnographic sensibility, charting rural Laotian life, including superstitions – as embodied in particular in Taitok and her belief that Ahlo is the bearer of bad luck.
Indeed, the clash of tradition with modernity is perhaps one of the key themes of the film, as I shall discuss presently.
According to Mordaunt, Laos is the most bombed nation on the planet, in part as a result of American bombing of the country during the so-called ‘Secret War.’ The ‘Secret War’ is another term for the Laotian Civil War that took place between 1953 and 1975, and which also involved those taking part in the Vietnam War. As a result, American and other forces dropped many bombs in/on Laos during this period.
Indeed, there are haunting scenes in The Rocket featuring unexploded bombs that have become an almost fixed part of the Laotian landscape – even 40 years after the end of the Secret War. The bombs, therefore, come to symbolise in the film both the precarious nature of life for the many people living in the Lao countryside (these devices could explode at any time, and lives can end suddenly, as the film shows us even from the outset with the death of Ahlo’s brother), but also the way in which Laos has perhaps been affected not by internal forces (how ‘civil’ was the Secret War?) but by external forces.
One senses, almost, that rural Laos might well continue to exist in a peaceful and bucolic fashion had it not been bombed into modernity. This forced entry into modernity continues today, but instead of bombs, the film shows to us the forced relocation of many Lao people as a result of dam construction (Mordaunt in interview reminds us that 60 million people have been relocated worldwide for dam construction – more than the entire population of the UK).
And, in an interview with the BFI, Mordaunt talks about how the film wants to reflect on Laos’ relationship with the wider world, suggesting how Australia plays a role in the dam-related relocations and the problem of robber barons (basically, people who bleed a country’s veins dry of its natural resources and get extremely rich in the process).
In Mordaunt’s own words: “There are a lot of cowboys about,” he says. “Our government is always saying we must relate to Asia. But the majority of that relationship is sheer economic opportunism. There are Australians making millions every year out of the place.”
In short, then, we see in The Rocket a Laos being forced into modernity by external factors that are not necessarily much to do with the country itself.
Nonetheless, the film does not simply suggest a romantic return to a pre-modern existence. Taitok’s superstitious belief that Ahlo means bad luck is ultimately proven wrong; Ahlo is not bad luck and, indeed, might be the bearer of good luck as he wins the rocket competition.
Indeed, that Ahlo wins the rocket competition by using materials from the unexploded bombs dropped during the Secret War suggests something quite stubborn, inventive and empowering. As Mordaunt says, the rocket competition allows the Laotians to ‘shoot back at the sky’.
That is, we see Laotians reappropriate the very bombs that brought them into modernity – even if, as Curtis LeMay might have put, the aerial onslaught of the time was also designed to bomb the Laotians back to the Stone Age. And in taking the remnants of foreign presence in Laos, in turning them into their rockets that help to maintain a Laotian tradition (the rocket festival), then we see an affirmative, potentially nationalistic, act of resistance taking place.
Perhaps we can read the character of Purple in this fashion as well. In impersonating James Brown, we see Purple take on an American icon who is associated with sex and libidinal release, suggesting that Laos, too, has desire for change.
However, the film is not without issues – and we can start to sort through those with a further consideration of the character of Purple.
On 5 April 1968, the day after the death of Martin Luther King, James Brown held a concert in Boston (the city where King had been assassinated) that was otherwise due to be cancelled, thus pacifying that city’s black community, which otherwise might have risen up in resistance and outrage in response to the events (as documented in The Night James Brown Saved Boston, David Leaf, USA, 2008).
With King as a noted civil rights activist who was vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam War, Purple would seem to use Brown also a means to speak out against the national trauma that has been the Secret War. Indeed, with Ahlo’s lost brother, with Purple’s alter ego as James Brown, and with the Secret War being the hidden other of the much more widely recognised and covered Vietnam War, The Rocket is in part about doubles – about missing doubles and overlooked histories that really ought to figure much more in our historical consciousness and in our understanding of the world today.
Nonetheless, Brown also caused controversy during the Vietnam War by travelling out to Asia in order to play to American troops. How ‘against’ the war was he such that he could do this? Brown insisted that soldiers are humans, too, but this makes the Purple-Brown analogy muddier and more problematic. And it becomes even more so when a source like this one suggests that Brown only agreed to play the concert if paid US$60,000 (of which he only allegedly received US$10,000). Did Brown take the money because one should not work for the Man for free, as it were? Or in going on stage and in asking Boston’s community not to react violently to the King assassination, did this make of Brown an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure – as various people accused him at the time?
In relation to Purple in The Rocket, that James Brown is such an unclear figure perhaps only reinforces the sense of trauma that Purple, with his military past, must have suffered. Somewhere here we have reworked Purple’s erased, real identity as the double of James Brown, as Ahlo is the double of Laos’ past, trying to work his perceived bad luck into some good luck by taking American bombs and firing them back into the sky.
The explosion might cause some rain to come down – with water being a key symbol of the film. A dam is being built – to use water for power, of course, but in an effort that might also privatise water, this most natural resource. The rural dwellers of the film are in a drought – and all that they have experienced in the past is a rain of bombs. And so they fire back into the sky and a new shower descends; perhaps the past will not so much be washed away, but allowed properly to appear and to be understood.
However, Purple is played by a well known Thai actor, Thep Phongam. In other words, if Purple as a character, and the film perhaps as a whole, are designed to make visible a ‘secret’ past that has for far too long remained invisible, it is ironic that a Thai star in fact only re-occults Laos; not even a Laotian actor can be found to play the part of a traumatised Laotian. That is, Laos continues to be invisible.
Perhaps the same is taking place through the casting of Bunsri Yindi as Taitok, Ahlo’s grandmother. Yindi is also a Thai actress, best known for playing the mother of Ting (Tony Jaa) in Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003).
But most pertinent to this erasure-under-the-pretence-of-exposure is Mordaunt as director and the film itself.
As the film’s website says, ‘The Rocket is one of the first feature films for international release set and shot in the intriguing and little-known country of Laos, rarely seen by the outside world since the end of the Vietnam War.’
(Air America, Roger Spottiswoode, USA, 1993, was set in Laos – but the film was in fact shot in Thailand and the USA. It stars Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr as pilots ‘recruited into a covert and corrupt CIA airlift organisation’.)
And yet, the film is made by an Australian-British filmmaker – and not by a Laotian.
In the film’s press kit, Mordaunt proudly declares that after Bomb Harvest, the ‘Lao and international response to the film was that we should make another film with a Lao child as the protagonist. And because Laos didn’t have a funded film industry we should be the team to endeavour to make Laos’ first internationally released feature film.’
It is in some ways fair enough that Mordaunt should make any film he chooses to, not least because, as he makes clear, Laos has no film industry to speak of. But on another level, since it is Mordaunt who is at the centre of the film’s publicity (rather than, say, Ki, the boy who plays Ahlo and whose performance is absolutely remarkable), we see Mordaunt himself becoming a quasi-robber baron of sorts – exploiting Laos and its history in order to make a career for himself.
Similarly, Australia put the film forward as its nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. Australia, therefore, is happy to reap the benefits of this film in a similar fashion that makes Australian a film that is supposed to be giving to Laos its own cinematic identity. Those amazing landscapes that help to sell the film are not Australian, but Laotian. They should be recognised as such.
In short, then, if the film is supposed to convey how Laos has been forced into modernity by foreign forces (Vietnam, the USA, Australia), then the film and Mordaunt in fact only continue this cycle. Laos itself gets re-buried after having exhumed for the benefit of Western audiences – something made clearer still when we learn that the film was banned in Laos itself (my thanks to Sonia P Barras and to Ben Dunant for bringing this to my attention).
Perhaps this also explains why, even though Mordaunt mentions that the film reflects on how Australia plays a role in shaping contemporary Laos, this is not actually particularly visible (if at all) in the film itself. In other words, while Mordaunt’s words do help to justify his film politically, one wonders that the film itself does not in fact have much political, but rather an economic sensibility.
This is made clear by the film’s final ambition for Ahlo to get rich quick via a rocket competition. As per the equally problematic Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008), money – and money gained via luck/a lottery of sorts (it happens to start to rain when Ahlo fires his rocket) – is posited as the answer to all problems. In other words, Laos can only get on board in modernity if it adopts a policy of individual, rather than collective, enrichment via competition.
In short, The Rocket suggests that capitalism is the answer for Laos. No wonder the film got banned in the communist country that is Laos itself…
Slumdog is equally problematic in its British use of India – and in its tale of individual escape by competition-winning. That co-director Loveleen Tandan is barely given any credit for the film – Danny Boyle did not share his directing Oscar with her – demonstrates clearly the true erasure of India that the film in fact gives to us.
Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that Western reimaginings of places like India and Laos can only be problematic – and perhaps we are in the midst of seeing a new, cinematic imperialism given how prominent it is becoming that Western filmmakers travel to the Third World in order to start their filmmaking careers.
(A short list of films might include Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, Colombia/USA/Educador, 2004), Año bisiesto/Leap Year (Michael Rowe, Mexico, 2010), Soi Cowboy (Thomas Clay, Thailand/UK, 2008), Grand comme le baobab/Tall as the Baobab Tree (Jeremy Teicher, Senegal, 2012), Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Romania/UK, 2009) – but there are many, many more.)
Finally, then, cinema is itself a double of reality. As Ahlo hides his dead twin, so perhaps The Rocket hides the real (dead?) Laos that this film proclaims to reveal. The Rocket is a visually stunning and beautifully acted film, demonstrating the precarious nature of life in rural Laos and showing us – at least implicitly – a scarred and traumatic national past in a sensitive and affecting fashion.
The problem remains, however, that while Laotians should perhaps indeed shoot back at the sky, they are not (yet) shooting their own films. The deprivation of water, here understood as the flow of cinematic images, seems instead to continue…