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MOVIE REVIEW
The Rocket (2013)

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Tom Greenwood/2013 Tribeca Film Festival

“The Rocket” has claimed three of the top prizes at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, winning the World Narrative Competition, Best Actor and the Heineken Audience Award. Set in rural Laos, the film revolves around a family curse brought about by the birth of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe). The misfortune that kindles the plot is a major dam construction project that displaces Ahlo’s clan. And that relocation has a domino effect all its own. Ostracized by even his own grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), the 10-year-old Ahlo gravitates toward his friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her outcast war-veteran uncle Purple (Thep Phongam). In hopes of proving his worth and finally breaking his family’s string of bad luck, Ahlo wants to compete in a local rocket festival, aided by Purple’s wisdom and know-how.

Given that writer-director Kim Mordaunt is Australian, “The Rocket” is an unmistakable piece of ethnography. The story reeks of the exoticism and mysticism of the Orient, while all the characters are caricatures. Unusual for an ethnography though, the film is punctuated by Western intrusions like the American involvement in the Laotian civil war, the unwelcome presence of the fictional Austral-Laos Hydro-Electric and Purple’s odd obsession with James Brown.

Liberal guilt is an easy sell with the presumably liberal art-house audience — we get it. But the way Mr. Mordaunt inflicts that guilt here is disingenuous. If the Laotians in the film appear to be superstitious simpletons, it’s not because they actually are — it’s because Mr. Mordaunt made them so. Regardless of culture, whose grandmother could be as cruel as Taitok, to actually contemplate killing the newborn Ahlo for fear that he might bring bad luck? Wanting us to think that Laotians are rubes is one thing, but Mr. Mordaunt will have us believe that they are savages who defy human nature. That really requires too great a suspension of disbelief.

THE ROCKET

Opens on Jan. 10, 2014 in Manhattan and on March 14, 2014 in Britain.

Written and directed by Kim Mordaunt; director of photography, Andrew Commis; edited by Nick Meyers; music by Caitlin Yeo; produced by Sylvia Wilczynski; released by Kino Lorber (United States) and Eureka Entertainment (Britain). In Lao, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Sitthiphon Disamoe (Ahlo), Loungnam Kaosainam (Kia), Thep Phongam (Purple), Bunsri Yindi (Taitok), Sumrit Warin (Toma) and Alice Keohavong (Mali).

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