“A new home could be a good thing,” offers Mali (Alice Keohavong). She sits with her family on the floor of their hut in Laos. Recently informed that their village will soon be under water owing to a new dam project, Mali looks forward to promises of electricity and running water, but her mother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), pokes at the fire, seeing only the worst ahead: “And leave our traditions behind?” The camera in The Rocket here cuts to Taitok’s 10-year-old grandson Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), blocked by her arm stretched across the frame toward the fire. He looks from Mali to his father Toma (Sumrit Warin), both silenced by the old woman’s glower.
Ahlo has his own sort of experience with Taitok, who at the moment of his birth pronounced him cursed, being a twin. His sibling died that dark night, rendered in hectic imagery at the start of Kim Moraunt’s movie, while little Ahlo screamed and his mother with Taitok to spare him. The metaphorical point is clear: Ahlo is born into a chaotic world, where traditions are at once threatened by corporate decisions and sustained by village elders, where change is both inevitable and distressing. Seeming to his grandmother the very incarnation of such trouble, Ahlo is burdened with the blame when tragedy strikes the family en route to their new home.
Here, Ahlo finds a friend, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), herself an unlikely survivor, following her parents’ deaths by malaria. Now living with he uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), Kia is lovely in every way, sincere and open-minded, full of hope and admiring of Purple’s particularities. An earnest James Brown fan (he wears a purple jacket that matches one the Godfather of Soul wears in the poster on his wall), he spends his evenings drinking and gyrating. The other villagers regard Purple and Kia as outcasts, leading Toma to worry about his son’s association with them. His concern becomes even more pronounced when Ahlo — still apparently plagued with bad luck — determines that he’ll make the money his family needs to buy land by entering a rocket contest.
Even as all this plot sets up for redemption and lessons learned, The Rocket maintains another, subtler focus, less Disneyfied and more perceptive. For while Ahlo plainly embodies tensions between past and future, fear and hope, he’s also a kid, curious and brash. At the same time, he provides both frame and reflection for Uncle Purple, also caught between times, a self-medicating war veteran both perplexing and audacious. When Ahlo jerry rigs the electricity in the village so Purple can watch James Brown videos, you see the rapturous result — Purple’s arms snapping and hips thrusting — while Ahlo races through the village, hoping to avoid Toma’s frustration and wrath.
The intercutting of these scenes on beat with “Get on the Good Foot” is not only entertaining filmmaking but also underscores lingering effects. These have to do with the ecstasies of James Brown and also the trauma of war, when Purple fought with Americans against the Pathet Lao. He reveals this trauma in his drunkenness as much as in his expertise regarding leftover munitions, the “Sleeping Tiger” (half-buried missiles or mines) that still threatens the village. In Purple’s example, so erratic and so perplexing, Ahlo and Kia discover how history can inspire movement or retrenchment.
The lesson is sometimes harder for their elders to absorb, so intent on feeding their families or coping with offscreen corporate or government forces. The film spends a bit of time setting the kids’ optimism against the adults’ doubt and dread, an opposition that finds its culmination in the rocket contest. (“I want to build rockets!” Ahlo exclaims; Kia observes, “You’re such a boy!”) Everyone is invested, from the Buddhist monks who teach Ahlo how to assemble a bamboo body to the villagers who dunk losers in a muddy river.
As each contestant climbs a ladder to launch his rocket, the camera watches from below, the sky endless and the light changing. The judges look not only for how far it travels or how bright its blast but also, whether it will appease the gods from whom they seek rain for their parched land. And so again, the film looks again at the difference Taikot voiced early on, between tradition and change. Turns out it’s not an opposition as a transition, a means to bring together experience and invention. If this is a familiar story, here it’s also new, reflected in the kids’ understandings — smiles wide or tentative, legs and arms churning as they run through forests and shafts of light the camera rushing to keep up with them.