Monday, 10 March 2014

Upwards: "The Rocket"

Globalisation has had a curious effect on the cinema, as anybody who bore witness to the Budapest-shot phoneyness of last year's 47 Ronin would surely attest. Perhaps most curious of all (in both senses of the word) has been that emergent wave of adventurer-filmmakers, forced out by their native industries into the wider world: from a British perspective, you might think of Gareth Edwards, who headed to Mexico to make Monsters, or Peter Strickland, who had to go to Transylvania to shoot Katalin Varga, or more recently Sean Ellis, who redirected his entire career in heading to the Philippines and coming back with Metro Manila

We're in similar territory with this week's new release The Rocket, which sees Aussie director Kim Mordaunt heading to Laos to film something of a country still torn between superstition and modernity. The new generation here is represented by ten-year-old Ahlo (former streetkid Sitthiphon Disamoe), who destiny would have marked down as ill-fated in the extreme. A prologue establishes how he emerged from the womb mere minutes before his dead twin brother: any sense he may be the luckier of the two for surviving is quickly shooed away by a withered crone of a grandmother who insists the lad must be the kind of miserable soul born to attract misfortune.

There follows much evidence in this batty old dear's favour, notably the freak death of the boy's admiring mother during the family's location as part of a dam building project. So it is that, at the end of his first decade on this planet, young Ahlo finds himself living in a makeshift holding camp, alongside an indifferent father and the aforementioned gran, who appears actively opposed to the boy's existence; after he's made persona non grata there, he finds himself taking flight through the countryside in the company of a fellow outcast. This is Purple (Thep Phongam), a wild-haired fellow named for the peacocking suit he wears in homage to James Brown.

Initially, Purple comes across as the kind of harmless movie eccentric whose presence requires no translation whatsoever, and The Rocket the kind of film bound to land Australia's official nomination for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars: it is, on some level, broadly recognisable as an attempt to view a country in flux through a child's eyes, adorned with bawdily universal humour (Ahlo is frequently referred to as either "Little Dick" or "Little Balls") and turning on a succession of father-son relationships, actual or surrogate. Gradually, however, far tougher choices begin to make themselves apparent, puncturing the film's generally benign surface like the unexploded doodlebugs littering this wartorn nation's landscape. Indeed, the threat of death - and sudden death, such as suffered by Ahlo's mother and brother - lingers throughout: tragedy is narrowly averted during an innocent game of mango baseball when Purple grabs the clusterbomb one of the youngsters was about to pitch forth. 

The rocket competition the film eventually segues into - piggybacking an apparently real ritual, which would appear something of a nightmare for the country's guardians of health and safety - might be seen as providing an easy means for an underdog to have his day, but as Mordaunt frames it, it resonates as so much more besides: a way for Ahlo to establish his independence from the old ways of thinking, and for his fellow countrymen to make something of the (s)crap around them, to take control of their circumstances, and - even if just for a few moments - to look upwards rather than down. Attractively shot by cinematographer Andrew Commis, with particular attention paid to the colour that lights up this otherwise hardscrabble life, The Rocket emerges as a genuine example of world cinema: opening another underfilmed corner of the planet up to us, gently expanding our collective gaze.

The Rocket opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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