During the Vietnam war, Laos became the most bombed country in history. Two million tons of bombs were dropped between 1964 and 1973, including 260 million cluster munitions. An estimated 30 percent of that ordinance never detonated, and to this day Laotians are still maimed and killed by the bombs every year.
Director Kim Mordaunt returns to Laos after his 2007 documentary on the subject, Bomb Harvest, with his narrative feature debut, The Rocket. He is still fascinated and concerned with all of that unexploded ordinance, but also tells a much smaller story about a 10-year-old boy named Ahlo and his family who are forced to relocate from their village when their local government decides to build a dam and flood their valley.
Moments after Ahlo's birth, a stillborn twin followed. Even if stillborn, twins in certain Laotian traditions are a sign that one of the children will be evil, so both must be killed. When his mother barely talks his grandmother out of drowning him, Ahlo is raised with the specter of being a "cursed child" over his head. He manages to keep his playfulness and enthusiasm, even as the family trudges through the still war-ravaged Laotian countryside searching for a new home.
The Rocket is mostly concerned with the family and its journey to find a place with fertile enough soil to plant a single mango seed and Mordaunt manages to tell the story without descending into preachy or maudlin territory. In fact, the film manages to walk a fairly fine line between being a straight forward view of grim realities facing Laotian farmers and being a rousing, crowd pleasing fable without stumbling too many times.
Even though The Rocket settles into more of a micro view of Laos, the larger picture is always in frame, just out of focus. Mordaunt manages to get some shots across the bow at globalism, the tragic fate of former child soldiers and, of course, all of those sleeping giants ready to explode with the slightest stir. Young Ahlo bravely leads his family across this precarious landscape, teaching us the film's lesson simultaneously as he learns it: That instead of being defined by our past, we have to move through it fearlessly to find where we are supposed to take root.
dir. Kim Mordaunt
Tin Pan Theater