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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt’s 2007 documentary “Bomb Harvest” charted the decades-long impact of unexploded wartime ordinance strewn throughout Laos. Of an estimated 260 million bombs dropped by the United States from 1964-1973 (in an attempt to render the Ho Chi Minh Trail unusable), some 80 million failed to explode on impact. They’ve been taking lives, and land, ever since.
Mordaunt returned to that rapidly developing nation (“the most bombed country, per capita, on the planet”) for his first work of narrative fiction. Starring mostly non-professional actors, “The Rocket” is no mere rookie effort — thanks largely to its cast of naturals and a familiar yet engaging storyline. Mordaunt’s observational style is a smart choice that pays off from mythical beginning to fairy tale end. The stark contrast between lush rural beauty and hardscrabble existence, tradition and progress, harsh reality and magical realism all benefit from the filmmaker’s confident and, yes, documentary-like restraint.
Optimistic, determined little Ahlo may or may not be bad luck. There’s no way to tell for sure, since his twin brother died at birth. “One is blessed, the other carries a curse,” says the midwife/mother-in-law who, sworn to secrecy by Ahlo’s doting mother, will always regard the child with a suspicious eye.
During Ahlo’s tenth year, the family is forced to relocate, so their farmland can be flooded — a necessary concession for the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam, whose uninvited presence comes with promises from the government that life will improve overnight (in the form of plentiful water and electricity in their new homes). That sets the stage for one of the film’s most memorable sequences, in which village residents sit through an animated presentation touting their bright future while Ahlo dives into a catchment area. As air from his exhaled breath bubbles to the surface, he swims past recently flooded houses and grand stone religious statues that are already forgotten relics of an idealized past.
When the family pulls up roots, Ahlo’s stubborn refusal to abandon his fishing boat leads to a tragic accident, and his twin status is revealed. “I’m not cursed,” he insists, after a series of unfortunate happenings seem to indicate otherwise.
Fleeing from the squalor of their new home (scrap metal lean-tos improvised when the pre-fab dwellings never show up), Ahlo befriends some new allies and announces he’s going to win a rocket festival that takes place in a drought-stricken village. First prize will buy enough land to prevent his father from moving the family to the big city and taking a factory job — and allow Ahlo the opportunity to plant a mango seed that will grow in tribute to a loved one whose death he feels responsible for.
Everyone dismisses him, of course, except for an equally resourceful little girl and her uncle — a James Brown-loving, purple suit-clad alcoholic whose military past holds the key to Ahlo’s sky-scraping, rainmaking, award-winning, life-changing rocket. This being a classic hero’s journey, that’s no more of a spoiler than noting that the dragon in a knight’s tale will be slayed. But the particular way in which Ahlo proves himself is what makes “The Rocket” soar. Mordaunt takes the deadly weapons of “Bomb Harvest” and turns them into agents of positive and lasting change, when placed in the right hands.
Written & Directed by Kim Mordaunt
Runtime: 112 minutes
Screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival
4/24, 8:30pm, at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
For tickets & info, call 646-502-5296 or visit tribecafilm.com/filmguide