It was a cold and stormy November night when I trudged through the rain-soaked streets of London to the home of Comrade Jon. I felt weary; the weight of the year’s political turmoil and heavy celebrity death count weighing heavily on my soul. Peeling off my sodden boats and sopping coat, I found temporary comfort in a steaming mug of hot chocolate. But I needed more, something to lift my spirits and warm my heart.
“Don’t worry,” Comrade Jon said, “the film I’ve chosen is uplifting.”
Oh good, I thought, a broad smile tugging at the corners of my mouth, I could do with uplifting.
The film in question, The Rocket, won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and had received universally high acclaim. Set in Laos, and spoken entirely in the Lao language, I was excited to see a film about a country of which I knew very little. At the very least, the film would be unique.
It was therefore with eager anticipation that I curled up on the sofa with a handful of chocolate and cupcakes, and waited for the jubilation to come.
Little did I know that Comrade Jon is a dirty liar.
Within five minutes, the film had claimed it’s first victim, a stillborn baby that was hastily disposed of before the father could see it. And while the baby’s twin brother survived, he was, as his grandmother sneeringly informed the distraught baby’s mother, likely cursed.
Flashing forward seven years, the living twin (named Ahlo) is distressed to learn that he must leave his home because his village is doomed to be destroyed due to the construction of a new dam. Belittled by his grandmother, and ignored by his father, Ahlo’s life is made even more miserable when his mother becomes the film’s second victim in a scene so viscerally unpleasant that I audibly gasped.
Now homeless and motherless, Ahlo and his remaining family is forced to live in squalor as the new home promised to them by the Laos government is yet to be built.
Needless to say, The Rocket is not the cheeriest of films.
Brief flashes of humour are provided by Purple, a flamboyantly attired man who loves James Brown and provides Ahlo with some desperately-needed compassion. But even Purple has his dark side and the film makes numerous, subtle references to Purple’s harrowing past in the Laotian Civil War.
The climax of the film takes place at the rocket competition that gives the film its name, and it’s here, in the very final five minutes, that Ahlo finally receives the love and acceptance that his family has been failing to give him due to his supposed curse.
So I guess, in the end, I did receive the happy ending that I had been craving. But the delight and exhilaration of the ending was possibly too little and too late to really buoy my battered spirit.
At times I wasn’t certain what message the film was trying to convey. The construction of the dam is what propels the narrative at the beginning of the film, which perhaps suggests a criticism of urban and industrial development at the expense of local, traditional people. But the film repeatedly disparages traditional folklore (such as Ahlo’s supposed curse) as archaic, and the more traditionally-minded characters (Ahlo’s father and grandmother) are portrayed as cruel and backward in comparison to the more Westernised and eccentric Purple. So is the loss of tradition something to be mourned or celebrated?
Then the dam is swiftly forgotten as a source of conflict and for the last two-thirds of the film, explosives become the central theme for the narrative. Winning the rocket competition will bring Ahlo’s family wealth and prestige, finally saving them from a miserable, nomadic existence. But at the same time, rockets are also a source of extreme danger for our characters and Ahlo’s family is constantly trying to avoid the deadly unexploded ordnance left in the wake of the recent war.
And yet, while the message of the film was perhaps unclear, the characters were compelling enough to keep the story propelling forward quite nicely. None of the characters are particularly original or nuanced, slotting neatly into well-defined character tropes, but all the performances are superb and each character is sympathetic, if not exactly likable (I’m looking at you, grandma!)
So if, like me, 2016 has left you feeling somewhat low, I would perhaps skip The Rocket for now and put on something comforting and mindless. And then, when you’re feeling more emotionally sound, give The Rocket a go because it really is a very good film. Sure it feels somewhat directionless at times but its endearing characters, portrayed with sensitivity and genuine charm by the entire cast, will keep you hooked for the entire run-time.
As for Comrade Jon – who deceived me into thinking that The Rocket would be a happy film – he should probably watch his back. Because I don’t like being lied to and I know some people with a very particular set of skills.