Witnessing beauty stained with tragedy or innocence ripped away by loss is not the sort of experience that washes away instantaneously. In the harsh wilderness of Laos, a country in Southeast Asia tortured by decades of war and oppression, you wouldn’t have to look far to spot such affecting sights. The challenge, however, lies in finding something that shines through the thick rubble of the past and the present.

For director Kim Mordaunt, the search for that something gave him the chance to highlight the forgiving side of Laos that he grew to know while filming the 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest, which looks at the dangerous disposal of the countless bombs that still litter the region. For his feature debut (he also wrote the screenplay), Mordaunt returns to the struggling, yet infallible country with The Rocket, a remarkably uplifting tale that captures the growing positivity that exists on the fringes of the country’s desolation.

To put the spirit of the Laotian people in perspective, Mordaunt weaves the tale of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), a 10-year-old boy who sets out on a cross-country journey to prove his worth to his family, his people and himself. The film opens with the intense birth of Ahlo and his stillborn twin brother in a cramped hut in the jungle. The scene is only made more tragic when we learn that their culture despises twins and thinks of them as a bad omen for the whole community. Demanded by her mother-in-law to kill her living son and never speak of her twins again, Ahlo’s mother refuses and buries his brother to hide the truth. Cut to present-day where a grinning and spritely Ahlo lives oblivious to his supposed bad luck, and instead, spends his days swinging from trees and inquisitively seeking out adventure with a childlike wonder.

Unfortunately, Ahlo’s village stands in the way of an American damming project that will wipe away everything his family has ever known. So begins their journey to find a new home; one that will reveal to Ahlo his true past after he has an unintentional hand in his mother’s shocking death and a slew of other misfortunes. It all culminates in a local rocket competition that offers cash to the winner, and affords Ahlo the chance to provide his family with a roof and expunge the bad luck from his name.

Mordaunt undoubtedly sets up this film as an illustration of Ahlo’s existential journey from a broken boy to a self-assured young man, and he couldn’t have done that without the person walking in Ahlo’s shoes (or feet, when he’s barefoot). Having been a street kid in Thailand before taking on the role, Disamoe brings an agile and resourceful persona to a character that must also exert an aura of independence. Only, he is still a kid with that twinkle of mischief and humorous wit in his eye, even in the face of uncertainty. As such, Mordaunt shoots his protagonist with a delicate push and pull that balances the boy’s more intimate moments, with those of him letting his free spirit loose in the wild.

When Ahlo meets Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), a sweet young girl who matches his pain of a lost loved one (only she lost both her parents) and his youthful exuberance, the two immediately become a partner-in-crime duo that plays off each other in a seemingly organic manner. However, for the playful sparkle in Disamoe’s eye, she carries a mature wisdom in hers — one that helps guide him down the right path.

Mordaunt, for all the suffering and dark images in which he subjects his characters, makes sure to include humor to lighten the heavy mood whenever possible. Kia’s uncle/guardian (Thep Phongam) is a recurrent source of comical relief, as the town idiot that everyone dismisses as a fool. Nicknamed Uncle Purple for his affinity for full-on James Brown attire, thanks to care packages from the States (a nod to Westernization), he pumps every scene he’s in with a spontaneity that zigs when you think it will zag.

In one particularly hilarious sequence, after Purple complains he doesn’t have electricity to watch his James Brown video, Ahlo steals the power for the TV, but knocks out power to the rest of the village in the process. As Ahlo is being pursued by guards, Mordaunt cuts back and forth between the chase and Purple dancing to the vintage James Brown recording that scores the scene, imitating the singer’s exaggerated performance move for move.

As much as the film provides this realistic balance between the heavy and the goofy, it also establishes an authenticity in its approach to one very important character: Laos itself. In a truly brilliant style of direction, Mordaunt makes every moment of our time in Laos seem less like a tourist trip and more like coming home. For every shot of a beautiful mountain range or high-raise jungle that could easily be pulled from a postcard, there are shots that show the hospitable (albeit rundown) villages and the low-lying fields that our characters populate most. It is just another example of Mordaunt’s well-rounded appreciation for the country that could have been easily swayed towards the pretty side in the hands of another director.

As Ahlo’s journey comes to an end, many metaphors can be made about how he is the rocket that is finally being ignited at the competition, but it is much more than that. Before the big climax, the audience is given a montage of his attempts at making this end-all-be-all rocket — complete with the gathering of the supplies (including a terrifying sequence that involves bat feces) and the trial testing. In this process, Mordaunt solidifies that it is not about how fast the rocket flies or how far it goes, but about the little pieces that make it up. If Ahlo is to be the rocket at the end of this movie, then everything that’s happened to him are the ingredients that make him fly. He has been touched by death, friendship, determination and anger, and he has grown from a naïve kid into a wise young man because of it.

While it is true that seeing beauty destroyed and innocence ripped away is devastating, they both also provide room to build or rebuild better. Mordaunt uses The Rocket to convey the universal themes of perseverance and the human spirit that are the same for us all. Everyone loses loved ones or is seen as different to those around them, but we accept these things and move forward. The question Mordaunt is asking is: what will you put in your rocket to make it soar?

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

“The Rocket” opened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 19, with its last public screening on Wednesday, April 24.

Featured image: Sitthiphon Disamoe as Ahlo. Photo Credit: Tom Greenwood.

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