Home Video Hovel: The Rocket, by Craig Schroeder
I really am a sucker for a charismatic child actor. And there may not be one more charismatic than Sutthiphon Disamoe, the lead in Kim Mordaunt’s new film The Rocket. When this kid smiles, I smile. He cowers in fright and I do the same. This kid starts constructing the titular rocket and I start thinking about how far I’d have to drive to get some really cool fireworks. This kid is great, even when the film itself can’t keep up the pace.
Disamoe plays Ahlo, a ten-year-old Laotian boy, cursed from birth; or at least that’s what his grandmother tells him in the aftermath of a freak accident that kills his mother. When the Laotian government plans to flood their village to build a dam, Ahlo, his grandmother, and his equally unaffectionate father are forced to move to a transient village. There, Ahlo meets Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), a little girl who has also been displaced and marginalized, who lives with her uncle, an alcoholic James Brown impersonator named Uncle Purple (Suthep Po-ngam). If that sounds ridiculous, it is. It’s also incredibly delightful.
The Rocket is a gorgeous film. Kim Mordaunt and cinematographer Andrew Commis take full advantage of the lush Laotian jungles, rivers and valleys. Commis juxtaposes vibrant light and violent color amidst tragedy. He is able to transform and manipulate those same palettes into warm, embracing shots in moments of exuberance, creating a cohesive whole for a film whose central premise is the paradoxical search for happiness amidst sadness. Be it scenes of unspeakable despair or absolute euphoria, Commis creates incredible shots that tell more of the story than Mordaunt’s screenplay.
Though successful at harvesting joy from misery, The Rocket is an uneven film. Two-thirds of the film is a road movie, as Ahlo, Kia, and their respective families journey across Laos to find a new home. But when they stumble across a local rocket building competition, there’s a jarring shift in the pace and tone of the film. The Rocket suddenly morphs into a save-the-rec-center type plot as Ahlo tries to assemble a winning rocket that will ensure prosperity and happiness for his family. It’s not a wholly un-welcomed change, as Mourdant is able to hang on to the central themes of his film, but it is a distracting change of pace that interrupts the flow.
Other than Ahlo, the peripheral characters, as delightful or menacing as they may be, have arcs that are almost entirely functions of the plot instead of actual character development. Any changes in Ahlo’s grandmother or father happen because that’s what the script says. Conversely, Uncle Purple is a pleasantly bizarre character that is kind of forgotten in the falling action of the film. Though Ahlo is a great character, it seems the effort put into his development came at the expense of the film’s supporting cast.
For a ninety-six minute film, Mordaunt is juggling a lot. The Rocket is a film with devastating imagery. It may seem crass to craft an optimistic film out of such violence and devastation, but Mordaunt does it. And for the most part, does it well. The Rocket isn’t perfect, but it is a well-executed film about optimism and hope. And with a young actor as talented and charming as Suttiphon Disamoe, the missing pieces are easily forgiven.