Adverse Conditions, by Tyler Smith
Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket appears to be first and foremost about the triumph of the human spirit. And, given its basic story, it succeeds. But what I found infinitely more fascinating was its portrait of oppression and unrestrained power and the price that it exacts on the human soul.
The story takes place in Laos, following Ahlo, a young boy who believes himself to be bad luck to those around him. This idea is implanted by his superstitious grandmother, who believes that twins are evil (Ahlo’s brother died in childbirth). Ahlo tries to fight against this image, but the circumstances of his family just keep getting worse.
Of course, what he doesn’t know and what we do is that, in this instance, the primary reason for his misfortune is the Communist government exerting power over the inhabitants of Ahlo’s village. It is decided that a dam is going to be built and that the villagers need to be relocated. The officials assure the people that they will be relocated to a nice, government-run town, so everybody goes peacefully. Once they arrive, they see that their new town hasn’t actually been built yet, and the government seems to be in no real hurry to do so. Instead, the officials present a large pile of wood and metal with which the villagers can piece together huts in which to live during the construction of the town (which hasn’t started). These materials are provided “courtesy of the government.”
After Ahlo and his family are driven out of the settlement- odd how the poverty stricken are often pitted against one another instead of their true oppressors- they tour the countryside, looking for a place to finally settle down. As they do, we see a war-torn country, littered with bombs and landmines. It is a treacherous landscape.
Ahlo and his family finally arrive at the Rocket Festival, a celebration in which the locals enter their homemade rockets to be judged by the town elders. First place receives a significant cash prize. Ahlo believes he can win, and works to create the most unique rocket of the competition.
The story of The Rocket is fairly commonplace, especially once the competition comes into play. At this point, we’re all so familiar with the cliches of American sports movies that we know what will happen, and how. And while the actors- especially Sitthiphon Disamoe as Ahlo- do their best to elevate and specify the material, it seldom feels fresh.
Thankfully, the film is more than simply its story. It is a very effective portrait of its location and its characters’ circumstances. The poverty depicted, along with the indifference of the government, is so palpable that it is almost suffocating. It is rare for a film to so effectively convey a deep, cynical hopelessness. These characters do not have the luxury of hope or ambition; the best they can do is to live as peaceful a life as their government allows them to, and eventually die poor.
So powerful is the environment of the film that it actually breathes a bit of life into the familiar story. Too often, when we see movies about a character triumphing over adversity, the triumph is emphasized and the adversity downplayed. In The Rocket, though, the horrible conditions are so real that triumph seems virtually impossible, making it more satisfying when it inevitably arrives.
Ultimately, The Rocket isn’t that memorable of a film, from a story and character standpoint. However, in its depiction and creation of a broken culture- as seen through the eyes of a child- it almost parallels a number of recent fantasy films. Movies like Avatar and Lord of the Rings are praised because they transport us to a different world and allow us to marvel as the differences. The Rocket does much the same thing, in that it creates a world that seems so very unfamiliar to us, but there is no wonder or awe; only the distinct desire to escape. And, in doing so, we feel what the characters feel, and we root for them to get out as soon as they can.