In 2007, Kim Mordaunt’s documentary BOMB HARVEST put a spotlight on Laos, a country that was largely ignored by cinema prior to (and indeed since) its release. BOMB HARVEST takes an unflinching look at the daily work of an Australian bomb disposal team in Laos who risk their lives for the preservation of others. It’s a well-made film with good intentions, but the documentary form and the intensity of the subject matter limited its audience. THE ROCKET, its spiritual and natural successor, deliberately has a much broader appeal: not only is it a straightforward film with traditional narrative elements, but it also increases Western audiences’ awareness and knowledge of this small country and its important history.
Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. During the ‘Secret War’ of 1964–1973, the bombing was relentless. The bombs from this unjustified war still litter the picturesque landscape today, and continue to kill and maim adults and children alike. BOMB HARVEST approached this situation with honesty and integrity. THE ROCKET is no less honest, but is cleverly structured around a fictional tale, offering both a moving family drama and a wider commentary on the current situation in Laos. It’s not preachy or overbearing; the audience can take away from it as much as they want.
The film begins with a birth – the first moments of Ahlo’s life. He is a twin, and because of this his grandmother believes that he carries a bad-luck curse that will forever follow his family. This belief is only strengthened by a series of awful events, for which Ahlo is blamed. Immovable and grounded in her heritage, the grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) stands in the film for tradition and pre-war Laos. Ahlo represents a more modern Laos, with his unbridled enthusiasm and imagination in the face of adversity. Mordaunt has stated that the film was made partly at the Lao community’s request for a film with a native protagonist who represents the people’s positive post-war attitude: Ahlo and his inextinguishable spirit are perfect embodiments of this.
Sitthiphon Disamoe plays Ahlo with all the necessary vibrancy. Before production began he was a street kid, and his consequent cockiness and determination shine through, but his vulnerability was much more difficult to access.Mordaunt has said of him: “I shared parts of my life with him, I talked honestly with him about things that had broken my heart, I talked to him about loss, about the loss of parents, and then he started to listen and align himself with the character of Ahlo […] and find something very honest and deeply embedded in him from part of his history.”
Early on in the film Ahlo encounters Kia, an orphan of the same age. Despite losing both her parents to malaria, she has a steely determination and an almost impossible positivity. Being children (and too young to recall the bombings), Ahlo and Kia are as yet untainted by adulthood, and provide a playful and fresh perspective on the Lao situation.
The basic story beats of THE ROCKET will be familiar to all, Mordaunt’s intention being to use an accessible and relatable platform from which to project big and important themes – in which he indisputably succeeds.
After THE ROCKET, I urge you to seek out BOMB HARVEST. The two films complement each other perfectly to entertain and educate us about this historically rich and politically important country that has had such a small presence on the silver screen.